Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Welcome to Matt Ridley's Blog

Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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A government U-turn on e-cigarettes

Britain' ministers finally realise vaping is rapidly killing smoking

My Times Thunderer article on vaping:

The government now says vaping with e-cigarettes is such a good thing that we should be prescribing it and smokers should be rushing to take it up. It’s 95 per cent less harmful than smoking, it’s helping people to quit tobacco and there’s no evidence it’s a gateway into smoking: rather the reverse.

Charities in need of reform

Recent scandals expose poor governance and irresponsible activism

My Times column on charities:

David Cameron, luxuriating in the prospect of weak opposition, has a chance to think about radical reform of both the private and public sectors. But there is a third sector that requires his attention even more urgently. He is well known to want to harness the generosity of Britain. To do that effectively the charity sector needs some big thinking — because after decades of regulatory neglect it is starting to unravel and is in crisis.

The collapse of Kids Company and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering should ring alarm bells throughout the sector: fear of failure or takeover is one of the things that keep private companies effective and, for too long, charities have not felt that breath on their neck. They have been given the benefit of the doubt because of their noble intent.

The Green Scare Problem

Environmental threats are often exaggerated, and remedies do more harm

My Wall Street Journal column on how green scares have led to counterproductive actions:

‘We’ve heard these same stale arguments before,” said President Obama in his speech on climate change last week, referring to those who worry that the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-reduction plan may do more harm than good. The trouble is, we’ve heard his stale argument before, too: that we’re doomed if we don’t do what the environmental pressure groups tell us, and saved if we do. And it has frequently turned out to be really bad advice.

Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living, and it’s a competitive market, so they exaggerate. Virtually every environmental threat of the past few decades has been greatly exaggerated at some point. Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic, as Rachel Carson claimed in her 1962 book “Silent Spring”; acid rain was not devastating German forests, as the Green Party in that country said in the 1980s; the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind, as Al Gore warned in the 1990s. Yet taking precautionary action against pesticides, acid rain and ozone thinning proved manageable, so maybe not much harm was done.

The great filter

The silence of universe seems ominous. Was Earth lucky?

My Times column on the paradox that planets seem to be abundant, but signs of life are rare:

The search for another world that can sustain life is getting warmer. We now know of 1,879 planets outside the solar system. A few weeks ago, we (the planetary we, that is: no thanks to me) found Earth’s twin, a planet of similar size and a habitable distance from its sun, but 1,400 light years from here. Last week we found a rocky planet close to a star just 21 light years away, which means if anybody lives there and tunes in to us, they could be watching the first episode of Friends.

Also last week the Philae lander’s results showed that the comet it is riding on has organic (carbon-based) molecules in its dust, the ingredients of life. Even in our own solar system we know of a moon, Titan, where it rains methane, and another, Europa, with an ice-covered ocean. In short, it is getting ever more likely that there are lots of bodies like Earth in our own galaxy alone: with liquid water and the right sort of temperatures for the carbon chemistry of the kind that life runs on here.

The Paris Climate Summit

A binding agreement to non-binding targets looks likely

My Times column on the coming summit on climate policy in Paris:

The first council of Nicea, held 1,690 years ago this summer, decided upon a consensus about the nature of God, namely that the son had been “begotten not made, being of one substance with the father”, as Athanasius argued, and not created out of nothing, as Arius argued. Phew. Glad they settled that.

Iceland's lesson for Europe

Devalue, restructure and be master of your own fate

My Times column on the economy of Iceland:

I spent part of last week in Iceland, the antithesis of Greece. It’s been a hard winter and a cold spring up there, but despite the stiff northerly breeze off the Arctic ocean, economically speaking Iceland is basking in real warmth, while Greece shivers in financial winter. Iceland teaches a very acute lesson for Greece, Britain, Europe and the world: independence works.

The need for tax simplification

Britain's tax code is among the most complex in the world

My recent Times column on tax simplification:

Can we try tax simplification, please?

Britain's global health role

In research, aid and regulation, the UK can lead the 21st century's biggest industry

My Times column on Britain's opportunity to be the world's doctor:

If the 19th century saw extraordinary changes in transport, and the 20th saw amazing changes in communication, my money is on health as the transformative industry of the current century. It is already arguably the biggest industry in the world and it is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially in Asia, where India and China are expanding their health sectors at 15 per cent and 12 per cent a year respectively. And health is ripe for a series of revolutionary advances in biotechnology, digital technology, robotics and materials.

What the climate wars did to science

Policy-based evidence making is all too frequent in climate science

In June I published a lengthy essay in Quadrant magazine on the effect that the global warming debate is having on science itself:

For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.

Technology, consumerism and the pope

Some religious people seem to think that shopping leads to violence

My Times Thunderer article on the pope's encyclical:

Why are people so down on technological progress? Pope Francis complains in his new encyclical about “a blind confidence in technical solutions”, of “irrational confidence in progress” and the drawbacks of the “technocratic paradigm”. He is reflecting a popular view, held across the political spectrum, from the Unabomber to Russell Brand, that technology, consumerism and progress have been bad for people, by making them more selfish and unhappy.

But however thoroughly you search the papal encyclical (a document that does at least pay heed to science, and to evolutionary biology in particular), you will find no data to support the claim that as people have got richer they have got nastier and more miserable. That is because the data points the other way. The past five decades have seen people becoming on average wealthier, healthier, happier, better fed, cleverer, kinder, more peaceful and more equal.

Invasive species are the greatest cause of extinction

Of 217 mammals and birds that have died out, nearly all were on islands

My Times column on the causes of extinction:

Human beings have been causing other species to go extinct at an unnatural rate over the past five centuries, a new study has confirmed. Whether this constitutes a “sixth mass extinction” comparable to that of the dinosaurs is more debatable, but bringing the surge in extinctions to an end is indeed an urgent priority in conservation.

So it is vital to understand how we cause extinctions. And here the study is dangerously wrong. It says that “habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change” are the main factors and that “all of these are related to human population size and growth, which increases consumption (especially among the rich)”.

The inventor of vaping

It was always about quitting smoking

My Spectator article on meeting the man who invented vaping, Hon Lik.

Few people have heard of Hon Lik, which is a pity because he’s probably saved more lives already than anybody else I have met. Twelve years ago, he invented vaping — the idea of getting nicotine vapour from an electronic device rather than a miniature bonfire between your lips. Vaping is driving smoking out at an extraordinary rate, promising to achieve what decades of public health measures have largely failed to do. And it is doing so without official encouragement, indeed with some official resistance.

Waterloo or railways

Courage and commerce -- which did more to enrich humanity

My Times column on the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo:

In Waterloo week, I confess I am a sucker for tales of military glory. I cannot get enough of the closing of the doors of Hougoumont, the charge of the Scots Greys, Wellington’s use of the reverse slope, the moment when Ney’s Old Guard broke, or the disappearance of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Not just Waterloo, but derring-do in general is often by my bedside: I’ve just finished reading books on climbing K2 and the Battle of the Bulge; I am up to speed on seracs and panzers.

Ecomodernism and sustainable intensification

Decoupling society from nature through innovation is good for nature

My Times column on eco-modernism:

In the unlikely event that the G7 heads of state are reading The Times at breakfast in Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, may I make a humble suggestion? On their agenda, alongside Ukraine, Greece, ebola and Fifa, is Angela Merkel’s insistence that they discuss “sustainability”. The word is usually shorthand for subsidising things that are not commercially sustainable, but if they want to make it meaningful, they have a ready-made communiqué to hand. It comes in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a short but brilliant essay published online recently by 18 prominent greens. It gets sustainability right at last.

Spectator diary

On climate policy, coal, charity and ducks

My recent Spectator diary:

Martin Williams, former head of the government’s air quality science unit, has declared that the reason we have a problem with air pollution now is that ‘policy has been focused on climate change, and reducing CO2 emissions, to the exclusion of much else, for most of the past two decades. Diesel was seen as a good thing because it produces less CO2, so we gave people incentives to buy diesel cars.’ Yet another example of how the global warming obsession has been bad for the environment — like subsidising biofuels, which encourage cutting down rainforests; or windfarms, which kill eagles and spoil landscapes; or denying coal-fired electricity to Africa, where millions die each year from the effects of cooking over smoky wood fires.

Greens are too hard on coal. If much of the world had not switched from wood to coal in the 1800s, we would have deforested the planet almost entirely. By 1860, Britain was getting as much energy from coal as a forest the size of Scotland could yield; today, we’d need a forest the size of South Africa. And coal produces less carbon dioxide than wood per unit of energy. I would say this, wouldn’t I? My ancestors were in coal from about 1700 and I still am, hosting a temporary surface mine on my land. It provides good jobs, lots of tax, a community benefits fund and an income windfall for local residents as well as me. Plus opportunities for spectacular restoration schemes, like Northumberlandia (look it up). It also helps keep electricity affordable.

FIFA and other unaccountable international fiefdoms

There's very little to check the chairmen of International bodies

My Times column on unaccountable chairmen of international agencies:

The Fifa fiasco is not just about football. It is also emblematic of a chronic problem with international bureaucracies of all kinds. The tendency of supranational quangos to become the personal fiefdoms of their presidents or directors-general, and to sink into lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged, is not unique to Fifa or sport. It is an all too common pattern.

Cholesterol is not bad for you

A sixty-year torrent of bad dietary advice is coming to an end

My Times column on the U-turn over cholesterol and saturated fat:

If you are reading this before breakfast, please consider having an egg. Any day now, the US government will officially accept the advice to drop cholesterol from its list of “nutrients of concern” altogether. It wants also to “de-emphasise” saturated fat, given “the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease”.

Fossil-fuel divestment makes no sense

It's ineffective, unethical, hypocritical, mistargeted and based on errors

My Times column on the flawed fossil-fuel divestment campaign:

Institutions and pension funds are under pressure to dump their investments in fossil-fuel companies. The divestment movement began in America, jumped the Atlantic and has become the cause célèbre of the retiring editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. The idea is that if we do not “leave it in the ground”, the burning of all that carbon will fry the climate.

Some are resisting: the Wellcome Trust has politely declined to divest, saying it thinks it is better to keep the shares so it can lean on company executives to decarbonise; the University of Edinburgh unexpectedly voted last week not to divest, using a similar argument; and Boris Johnson has just rejected a motion by the London Assembly to divest its pension funds of fossil-fuel shares. The Church of England has cunningly confined its divestment to “thermal coal” and Canadian oil sands companies, getting good publicity but not having to sell many shares.

How to increase natural capital

Decoupling human activity from land and wildlife helps nature

My review in The Times of Dieter Helm's book Natural Capital:

The easiest way to get a round of applause at a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists. Nature-studiers think money-studiers are heartless vandals who demand the rape of Mother Nature in the quest to build up piles of financial assets at the expense of natural ones. Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor, is a professional economist but he is bravely crossing the floor into ecology and wants to show how to build up “natural capital”.

Extreme greens — those who advocate giving up civilisation and handing the planet back to nature — will not like it. Not a man to pull his punches, Helm thinks economic growth is a good thing for poor people, that the followers of Malthus have “never appreciated the full impact of technology on resource scarcity” and that “a sort of totalitarianism lurks uncomfortably and implicitly in some of the manifestos of more extreme green groups”.

There is no bee apocalypse

Honey bees are increasing, and there's no evidence of a general decline in wild bees

My Times column on bee declines and neonicotinoid pesticides:

So those beastly farmers want the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides lifted to help them to poison more bees, eh? Britain’s honeybees are supposedly declining and so are our 25 species of bumblebee and 230 species of solitary bee. “Almost all are in decline,” laments one of the green blob’s tame journalists, echoing thousands of other articles.

But it’s bunk. There is no continuing decline in honeybee or wild bee numbers. There was in the 1980s when the varroa mite hit bee hives. But not today. Honeybee numbers are higher today than they were in the 1990s when neo-nics began to be widely used. This is true in Europe, North America and the world. There are about ten million more beehives in the world today than there were in 2000.

Cameron faces guerrilla warfare in the House of Lords

Without coalition, the Conservatives will be greatly outnumbered in the Upper House

My Times column on a perverse outcome of the election:

In one respect last week’s election result has made David Cameron’s life more difficult. While gaining seats in the Commons from the Liberal Democrats, he has effectively lost them in the Lords. That is to say, the 101 Lib Dem peers will presumably all cross the aisle from the government benches to the opposition benches when the Lords next meet.

Reform is the theme of great governments

Challenging entrenched bureaucracies is what politicians should do

My Times column on reform as a political theme:

If there is political paralysis on Friday, as seems likely, and given how many of their powers national politicians have anyway passed to bodies like the Bank of England and the European Commission, perhaps we can look forward to a spell of legislative calm. That might be no bad thing. But there is one thing even a weak minority government can and should do: reform.

The great political battles that shaped the history of parliament, especially in the 19th century, were all about reform. Prison reform, social reform, moral reform, civil service reform, reform of the corn laws, above all parliamentary reform. The very purpose of the old Liberal party, meeting in the Reform Club, was reform.

Ancient DNA makes pre-history an open book

Mass migrations, mixed matings and rapid evolution are common themes

My Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal:

Imagine what it must have been like to look through the first telescopes or the first microscopes, or to see the bottom of the sea as clearly as if the water were gin. This is how students of human prehistory are starting to feel, thanks to a new ability to study ancient DNA extracted from bodies and bones in archaeological sites.

Low-cost, high-throughput DNA sequencing—a technique in which millions of DNA base-pairs are automatically read in parallel—appeared on the scene less than a decade ago. It has already transformed our ability to see just how the genes of human beings, their domestic animals and their diseases have changed over thousands or tens of thousands of years.

Electricity for Africa

There really is a trade-off: denying aid for fossil fuels hurts the poor

My column in The Times is on the undeniable truth that western countries are preventing Africans getting access to the cheapest power, which is fossil-fuelled.

In what is probably the silliest comment on climate since a Ukip councillor blamed floods on gay marriage, a green journalist opined of the refugees dying in the Mediterranean: “This is what climate crisis looks like . . . We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices.”

The soaring prices were actually exacerbated (as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN confirmed) by the diversion of much of the world’s farmland into making motor fuel, in the form of ethanol and biodiesel, for the rich to salve their green consciences. Climate policies were probably a greater contributor to the Arab Spring than climate change itself.

Only innovation can save us

Election campaigns ignore what matters most - technological change

My Times column argues that only high-tech innovation will give us the cash to fund our future, so why won’t Cameron or Miliband talk about it?

Fifty years ago yesterday, a young computer expert called Gordon Moore pointed out that the number of transistors on a silicon chip seemed to be doubling every year or two and that if this went on it would “lead to such wonders as home computers . . . and personal portable communications equipment”.

The Vital Question

Nick Lane's new book understands how life started as an energy system

My review of Nick Lane's book The Vital Question in The Times:

Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. He can now tell a story of how, when and where life started, and what happened to it in its early days. Most of that story looks as if it is true.

Life uses information (stored in DNA) to capture energy (which it stores in a chemical called ATP) to create order. Humans burn prodigious amounts of energy — we generate about 10,000 times as much energy per gram as the sun. The sun is hotter only because it is much bigger. We use energy to create and maintain intricate cellular and bodily complexity, the opposite of entropy, just as we do in the economy, where the harnessing of power from burning fuel enables us to build skyscrapers and aeroplanes. But we — and here “we” means all living creatures, including bacteria — have an idiosyncratic way of trapping energy to make it useful. We pump protons across lipid membranes.

Welfare reform and unemployment

It's kinder to push people into work than to park them on benefits

My Times column on Britain's remarkable and unexpected plunge in unemployment and what lies behind it:

Five years ago, almost nobody expected that inflation would vanish, as tomorrow’s figures are expected to show, or that unemployment would plummet, as Friday’s numbers will confirm. Whatever else you think about this government, there is no doubt it has presided over an astonishing boom in job creation like nowhere else in the developed world.

The milestones are impressive: an average of a thousand new jobs a day over five years; unemployment down by almost half a million in a year; a jobless rate half the eurozone’s; more jobs created than in the rest of Europe put together; more people in work, more women in work, more disabled people in work than ever; the highest percentage of the population in work since records began. All this while the public sector has been shedding 300 jobs a day.

A parliamentary nightmare

How the general election could produce a constitutional crisis

My Times column on what might happen if the British election prouces a messy result:

had a bad dream. It was April 2016. The country was tumbling into a constitutional crisis, dragging the Queen into a gathering storm in the week of her 90th birthday. The financial markets were hammering the pound and threatening a bond strike as the deficit rose and growth faltered. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he feared that Britain had become ungovernable.

It had begun with the election. The Conservatives had won the most seats, 290 to Labour’s 260. But with only 26 Lib Dems in the Commons, the Tories were unable to form a workable coalition, and with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander gone there was no appetite for it anyway, not when David Cameron would have to rely also on Ukip or the Ulster Unionists to get bills through parliament. So Mr Cameron had formed a minority government, but could not carry a Queen’s speech and lost a vote of confidence.

High-speed rail versus driverless cars

By 2030 working while driving may be as easy as working while on the train

My column in The Times on British transport priorities:

By the time HS2 is fully operational in 2033, more than a quarter of all cars on our roads will be fully autonomous, according to a forecast by the consultants KPMG. That may well make fast trains less urgent, and decongested motorways more so. The economic case for HS2 is fragile enough before taking future driverless cars into account.

Last week on the very same day that a House of Lords committee savaged the economic case for the HS2 railway — costing £50 billion with contingency — another report by KPMG, for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, estimated the potential benefits to Britain of driverless cars at £51 billion. Per year.

How to save the oceans

No-take zones and marine reserves are needed, because over-fishing is key

Carbon capture and storage is not coming to the rescue

Getting emissions down is not going to be easy

My Times column on carbon capture:

Carbon dioxide is not the most urgent problem facing humanity, compared with war, extremism, poverty and disease. But most presidents, popes and film stars think it is, so I must be wrong. For the purposes of this article let’s assume they are right. What’s the best way of solving the problem?

Whichever party wins the election will be legally committed to cutting our carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. About 90 per cent of Britain’s total energy still comes from fossil fuels and bio-energy, both of which produce carbon dioxide. The expansion of nuclear, wind and solar is not going nearly fast enough, because electricity comprises just one third of our energy use. If we are to decarbonise transport and heating too, we will have to switch to electric cars, and electric radiators, which means generating three times as much electricity. Only aeroplanes would be left using fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are not finished, not obsolete, not a bad thing

Their energy makes the difference between misery and prosperity

The environmental movement has advanced three arguments in recent years for giving up fossil fuels: (1) that we will soon run out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford the climate consequences of burning them.

These days, not one of the three arguments is looking very healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have contributed so dramatically to the world’s prosperity and progress.

In 2013, about 87% of the energy that the world consumed came from fossil fuels, a figure that—remarkably—was unchanged from 10 years before. This roughly divides into three categories of fuel and three categories of use: oil used mainly for transport, gas used mainly for heating, and coal used mainly for electricity.

More food from less land

Booming cereal yields are good for the planet, but Europe lags behind

My Times column on farm yields and land sparing:

If something drops out of the news, it usually means it is going well. Mad cow disease killed nobody last year; Mozambique and Angola are growing their economies at a furious lick; the Somerset levels are not flooded this winter. There were only two localised famines last year — in South Sudan and the Central African Republic — both caused by conflict, rather than drought or population pressure. That’s because the feeding of the world is going so well it’s not news.

New figures from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation show that the world’s cereal harvest, which provides more than half of the calories that humans eat, broke a new record last year at 2.54 billion tonnes — an astonishing 20 per cent higher than ten years ago. Thanks to better techniques and seeds, the world’s farmers (of which I declare I am one, in a mostly hands-off way) have provided a growing population with more food per head, year after year, largely without cultivating extra land or using extra water or chemicals.

Scandals don't dent reverence for the BBC and the NHS

Public bodies are often immortal in a way that private ones rarely are

My latest column in The Times:

The latest report into Jimmy Savile’s astonishing freedom to roam the wards of Stoke Mandeville hospital will not lead to the end of the National Health Service. Nor will the forthcoming report that apparently finds a “systemic cover-up” of the unnecessary deaths of babies and mothers at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust between 2004 and 2013. The NHS itself will survive these scandals, as it survived the Mid Staffordshire hospitals scandal of 2005-2008. The immortality of large public-sector monopolies is a given.

Likewise, although the Jimmy Savile affair has caused crises and resignations at the BBC, nobody for a moment believed that the BBC itself would close. But why not exactly? Private firms that get into this much trouble generally do vanish, by takeover or bankruptcy. Castlebeck, the company that ran the Winterbourne View care home where scandalous treatment was exposed in 2011, went into administration two years later. Pollypeck, Enron and Barings no longer exist.

Greece may still leave the euro

If it won't reform, then it should devalue

Free trade's benefits

Consumers are the ones that benefit from buying what they want

My Times column on free trade:

An American friend recently sent me a gift as a thank you for a weekend’s hospitality. It arrived in the form of a card from the Post Office telling me to pay a hefty sum of tax before the item itself (a wooden bowl) could be delivered. Had my friend been Scottish or French or from the next village there would have been no charge. What business has government putting a tariff barrier between two friends?

Last week the Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps delivered a passionate defence of free trade of the kind that used to come from the radicals in the days of the Corn Laws but these days is rarely heard from any part of the political spectrum. Crucially, he took the perspective of the consumer, not the producer.

Britain still needs shale gas

Prices may have fallen, but it's the cleanest and safest of fossil fuels

Mitochondrial donation is a wonderful opportunity

If it is safe, then we should not prevent families using it

My Times column on Britain's impending decision to allow mitochondrial donation:

Tomorrow’s vote in the House of Commons on whether to allow mitochondrial donation has at least flushed out the churches. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have decided that it is not acceptable to let a handful of desperate families apply to the authorities to be allowed to have their own children free of the risk of rare mitochondrial conditions that, in the words of one parent, “strip our children of the skills they have learnt and tire their organs one by one until they fail”.

What conceivable greater moral good overrides the need of such families? I suspect some clerics have gone no further into the science behind this than the headline “Three-parent children”, and said “Yuk!” If so, they have been horribly misled. There has rarely been a more inaccurate phrase.


A book about bitcoin's implications

My review of the book Cryptocurrency appeared in the Times:

When the internet started, few guessed how it would develop. I remember reviewing a string of books in the early 1990s arguing that it would lead to atomised and isolated lives, cut off from social contact. Social media put paid to that.

So it is rash to suggest just what the internet has in store for us next. But it is also rash to think we can expect merely more of what we have now. The internet is young and it is now evolving in a virtually autonomous fashion with startling surprises in store. If forced to make a (rash) guess, I would hazard that the next big thing is going to be spawned by bitcoin, or rather the “blockchain” technology behind bitcoin: cutting out the middleman in all forms of commerce.

Move the bats, eliminate the rats

Alien invasives are the biggest conservation problem, not habitat for bats

My recent column in The Times is on wildlife conservation:

On the day last week that the House of Commons was debating a private member’s bill dealing with bats in churches, conservationists were starting to eliminate rats from the island of South Georgia by dropping poisoned bait from helicopters. Two very different facets of wildlife conservation: the bats stand for preservation of pristine nature from human interference; the rats for active intervention to manage nature in the interests of other wildlife. Which is better value for money?

Bats love roosting in churches, but those who love bats and those who love churches are increasingly at loggerheads. Bat pee has damaged many of the brasses in British churches, and stained or eroded precious medieval monuments and paintings. Expensive restoration work is often undone in a matter of months by micturating bats.

Machine intelligence

My contribution to's annual question has an annual question to which 190 people are invited to respond. This year it is "What do you think of machines that think?" and the answer I gave is below:

What I think about machines that think is that we are all missing the point still. The true transforming genius of human intelligence is not individual thinking at all but collective, collaborative and distributed intelligence—the fact that (as Leonard Reed pointed out) it takes thousands of different people to make a pencil, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil. What transformed the human race into a world-dominating technium was not some change in human heads, but a change between them: the invention of exchange and specialisation. It was a network effect.

GM crops: the scientific argument's over

Genetic modification raises yields and cuts pesticide use

My Times column on genetic modification of crops:

The European Parliament votes tomorrow on whether to let countries decide their own policies on growing genetically modified crops. The vote would allow countries such as Britain to press ahead because of hard evidence that such crops are good for the environment, good for consumers and good for farmers; and let countries such as Austria continue to ban the things despite such evidence. It’s an alliance of the rational with the superstitious against the bureaucratic.

Indeed, the untold story is that it was a triumph of subtle diplomacy by Owen Paterson — the Eurosceptic former environment minister who knows how to work the Brussels system. Having gone out on a limb to support GM crops in two hard-hitting speeches in 2013, he was approached by his Spanish counterpart who was desperate to unclog the interminable Brussels approval process for new crops.

My life as a climate lukewarmer

The polarisation of the climate debate has gone too far

Digital government begins

Welcome signs of an end to public sector IT over-runs and failures

In December, I omitted to post my Times column on government IT and digital policy:

The travel chaos last Friday was a reminder of just how much life depends on Big Software doing its job. The air-traffic control centre at Swanwick was six years late and hundreds of millions over budget when it opened in 2002 in shiny new offices, but with software still based on an upgraded, old system. Unnoticed and unsung, however, this government may actually have found a way to bring the horrid history of big, public IT projects to an end.

The inevitability of cancer

Tumours are the wages of age, not the wages of sin

My Times column on cancer, luck and good deaths:

If we could prevent or cure all cancer, what would we die of? The new year has begun with a war of words over whether cancer is mostly bad luck, as suggested by a new study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and over whether it’s a good way to die, compared with the alternatives, as suggested by Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the BMJ.

Britain's best years

800 years after Magna Carta and 200 after Waterloo, the UK's in good shape

My Times column is on the UK's high standard of living and social freedoms:

Years ending in 15 (or 65) have often been good ones to be British. In January, we celebrate 750 years since Simon de Montfort first summoned Parliament to Westminster. In June, we mark the 800th anniversary of making kings subject to the law in Magna Carta. Three days later it’s off to Waterloo for the 200th birthday of the battle.

There’s more. In October, we cry God for Harry, England and St George, and beat the French again at the 600th anniversary of Agincourt. November, for those with any fireworks left, marks the 300th anniversary of arguably the last battle fought on English soil — at Preston, where the Old Pretender’s last hopes died.

Polygamy fuels violence

Imposing monogamous marriage helped pacify the west

Coal interest

Statement about coal mining interests in Northumberland

I have had enquiries about my interest in coal mining, and am happy to make the following statement:

The following has been on my website since its inception:

“I have a financial interest in coal mining on my family's land. The details are commercially confidential, but I have always been careful to disclose that I have this interest in my writing when it is relevant; I am proud that the coal mining on my land contributes to the local and national economy; and that my income from coal is not subsidized and not a drain on the economy through raising energy prices. I deliberately do not argue directly for the interests of the modern coal industry and I consistently champion the development of gas reserves, which is a far bigger threat to the coal-mining industry than renewable energy can ever be. So I consistently argue against my own financial interest.”

Policy-based evidence making

Science is being corrupted by political bias

My column in the Times, with post-scripts:

As somebody who has championed science all his career, carrying a lot of water for the profession against its critics on many issues, I am losing faith. Recent examples of bias and corruption in science are bad enough. What’s worse is the reluctance of scientific leaders to criticise the bad apples. Science as a philosophy is in good health; science as an institution increasingly stinks.

Pilotless planes and driverless cars

Eventually, it will feel reassuring that there's nobody in the cockpit

My column in The Times:

The Civil Aviation Authority is concerned that pilots are becoming too reliant on automation and are increasingly out of practice in what to do when the autopilot cannot cope. We now know that a fatal Air France crash in the Atlantic in 2009 was caused by confused co-pilots reacting wrongly when the autopilot disengaged during turbulence. They put the nose of the plane up instead of down.

But there is another way to see that incident: the pilot was asleep at the time, having spent his time in Rio sightseeing with his girlfriend instead of sleeping. When roused as the plane stalled, he woke slowly and reacted too groggily to correct the co-pilots’ mistakes. Human frailty crashed the plane, not mistakes of automation.

The EU versus the UN: who makes the rules?

Increasingly, trade rules are set above the level of Brussels

My column in the Times:

Political institutions evolve slower than social ones

Britain's government would be familiar to Daniel Defoe

My Times column on the little-changed political institutions of London:

Two hundred and ninety years ago a novelist, spy, tradesman and bankrupt named Daniel Defoe began publishing his account of A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain. A book out this week by the distinguished sociologist WG Runciman imagines what Defoe would make of the island if he were to take his tour again today. His title gives away the conclusion: Very Different, But Much the Same.

For all the astonishing changes that would boggle Defoe’s mind — aeroplanes, toilets, motorways, telephones, cameras, pensions, the internet, religious diversity, vaccines, working women, electricity and vastly higher living standards especially for the poor — he would be just as amazed at the things that have not changed.

Ants, altruism and self sacrifice

It's the selfishness of genes that makes us unselfish

My Times column is on a disagreement between Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins about evolution:

I find it magnificent that a difference of opinion about the origin of ants between two retired evolutionary biologists, one in his eighties and one in his seventies, has made the news. On television, the Harvard biologist EO Wilson called the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins a “journalist”, this being apparently the lowest of insults in the world of science; it was taken as such.

Greens take the moral low ground

Why environmentalists defend the wealthy against the poor

My Times column:

A confession: I voted for the Green Party in 1979 – one of less than 40,000 people in the whole country who did so. It was then called the Ecology Party and I knew the local candidate in Oxford, which is some excuse. But mainly I wanted to save the planet, and thought the greater good should trump self interest. I was definitely on the moral high ground. Or was I? Hold that thought.

The latest opinion polls show that the Green Party is doing to the Liberal Democrats what UKIP is doing to the Conservatives, and could even relegate the LibDems to fifth place in next year’s general election in terms of vote share. Peter Kellner of Yougov has analysed today’s typical Green voter and found that she is almost a mirror image of the UKIP voter. Where UKIP voters are older, maler, more working class, less educated and more religious than the average voter, Green voters are younger, femaler, posher, much better educated and less religious than the average voter.

What is WHO up to?

The World Health Organisation attacks vaping instead of Ebola

My Times column is on the World Health Organisation's odd priorities: its early complacency about ebola, while it attacks a new technology that saves the lives of smokers by getting them off tobacco, and obsesses about climate change:

Is there a connection between ebola and e-cigarettes?I don’t mean to imply that vaping has caused the epidemic in west Africa. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) now has serious questions to answer about its months of complacency over ebola. WHO’s director-general, Margaret Chan, made a speech only two weeks ago implying that tobacco control and the fight against e-cigarettes is a more important issue.

Cheaper oil is good news

Ignore producers: the cost of energy benefits consumers

My Times column on the faling oil price:

So ingrained is the bad-news bias of the intelligentsia that the plummeting price of oil has mostly been discussed in terms of its negative effect on the budgets of oil producers, both countries and companies. We are allowed to rejoice only to the extent that we think it is a good thing that the Venezuelan, Russian and Iranian regimes are most at risk, which they are.

Ebola needs beds on the ground

Public health measures have to work soon, or a major pandemic looms

My Times column on Ebola:

It is not often I find myself agreeing with apocalyptic warnings, but the west African ebola epidemic deserves hyperbole right now.

Bees and pesticides

A precautionary ban has made things worse for bees

My Times column on how banning neo-nicotinoid pesticides is proving counter-productive for bees:

The European Union’s addiction to the precautionary principle — which says in effect that the risks of new technologies must be measured against perfection, not against the risks of existing technologies — has caused many perverse policy decisions. It may now have produced a result that has proved so utterly foot-shooting, so swiftly, that even Eurocrats might notice the environmental disaster they have created.

Bitcoin and block-chain could transform the world

The origins and implications of the technology behind bitcoin

My Times column on who started bitcoin and what it means:

Amid the hurly-burly of war, disease and politics, you might be forgiven for not paying much attention to bitcoin, the electronic form of money favoured by radical libertarians and drug dealers. Yet it is possible that when the history of these days comes to be written, bitcoin’s story will loom large. Unnoticed except by the tech-obsessed, the technology behind bitcoin may be slowly giving birth to a brave new world, with eventual implications well beyond money.

So argues a new book (Bitcoin: The Future of Money?) by the financial commentator and comedian Dominic Frisby. He makes the case that it is just possible that bitcoin and its rivals — known as altcoins — and the “blockchain” technology that lies behind them have the potential to spark a radical decentralisation of society itself. They could change the way governments finance themselves, make banks redundant and transform the ways companies are run. In the words of Jeff Garzik, a bitcoin developer, bitcoin could be “the biggest thing since the internet — a catalyst for change in all areas of our lives”.

How we got to now

Review of Steven Johnson's book on innovation

My review of Steven Johnson's book How We Got To Now appeared in the Times:

The meteorologist Edward Lorenz famously asked, in the title of a lecture in 1972: “does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”, and the phrase “the butterfly effect” entered the language. If Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Nowcatches on — and it deserves to — then the “humming bird effect” will also become common parlance.

English devolution

Loyalties are to nation and county, rather than region and continent

My Times column on English devolution following the Scottish independence referendum:

As part of the 1 per cent of England’s population that lives north of Hadrian’s Wall, I have found the past few weeks more than usually intriguing. It was fascinating to find that nearly everybody in the media seems to think the wall is the Scottish border; some news takes 1,500 years to reach the metropolis. And we northeasterners have been banging on for decades about the unfairness of the Barnett formula, which guarantees £1,600 extra in public spending per Scottish head per year, so it’s nice to see the rest of England waking up to that one, too.

The ozone hole was exaggerated as a problem

Serial hyperbole does the environmental movement no favours

My recent Times column argued that the alleged healing of the ozone layer is exaggerated, but so was the impact of the ozone hole over Antarctica:

The ozone layer is healing. Or so said the news last week. Thanks to a treaty signed in Montreal in 1989 to get rid of refrigerant chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the planet’s stratospheric sunscreen has at last begun thickening again. Planetary disaster has been averted by politics.

Whatever happened to global warming?

The explanations for the "pause" only make it less threatening in future

My op-ed in the Wall Street Journal addresses the latest explanations for the "pause" in global warming and their implications. I have responded to an ill-informed critique of the article below.

On Sept. 23 the United Nations will host a party for world leaders in New York to pledge urgent action against climate change. Yet leaders from China, India and Germany have already announced that they won't attend the summit and others are likely to follow, leaving President Obama looking a bit lonely. Could it be that they no longer regard it as an urgent threat that some time later in this century the air may get a bit warmer?

Government begins as a monopoly on violence

It's an official protection racket

My Times column last week was on the historical roots of government:

Nobody seems to agree whether Islamic State is best described as a gang of criminals, a terrorist organisation or a religious movement. It clearly has a bit of all three. But don’t forget that it aspires, for better or worse, to be a government. A brutal, bigoted and murderous government, its appeal is at least partly that it seems capable of imposing its version of “order” on the territory it controls, however briefly. It reminds us that the origin and defining characteristic of all government is that it is an organisation with a monopoly on violence.

Try free enterprise in Europe

It's worked elsewhere

My recent Times column was on the stagnation of European economic growth rates:

The financial crisis was supposed to have discredited the “Anglo-Saxon” model of economic management as surely as the fall of the Berlin wall discredited communism. Yet last week’s numbers on economic growth show emphatically the opposite. The British economy is up 3.2 per cent in a year, having generated an astonishing 820,000 jobs. We are behaving more like Canada, Australia and America than Europe.

If you think one year is too short, consider that (as David Smith pointed out in the Sunday Times) Britain’s GDP is now 30 per cent higher than it was in 1999, whereas Germany, France and Italy are just 18 per cent, 17 per cent and 3 per cent more prosperous respectively. For all Britain’s huge debt burden, high taxes and chronic problems, we do still seem to be able to grow the economy. Thank heavens we stayed out of the euro.

Reasons to be cheerful

In a time of widespread violence and disease, good news is no news

The Times carried my article arguing that things are still going well for the world as a whole even in a month of war, terror and disease. I have illustrated it with two superb charts from, a website being developed by the talented Max Roser.

Is this the most ghastly silly season ever? August 2014 has brought rich pickings for doom-mongers. From Gaza to Liberia, from Donetsk to Sinjar, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse — conquest, war, famine and death — are thundering across the planet, leaving havoc in their wake. And (to paraphrase Henry V), at their heels, leashed in like hounds, debt, despair and hatred crouch for employment. Is there any hope for humankind?

Gamekeepers are conservationists

Grouse moors have five times the wading bird life of other moors

My column in the Times on 11th August:

Tomorrow sees the start of the red grouse shooting season, a sport under attack as never before, with a petition to ban it, and campaigns to get supermarkets to stop selling grouse meat.

As somebody who lives in the rural north and knows the issue at first hand, I am in no doubt that the opponents of grouse shooting have it backwards. On both economic and ecological grounds, the shooting of grouse is the best conservation practice for the heathery hills of Britain. If it were to cease, most conservationists agree that not only would curlews, lapwings and golden plover become much scarcer, even locally extinct, but much heather moorland would be lost to forest, bracken, overgrazing or wind farms.

Reasons to be fearful about Ebola

This epidemic is not under control

My Times column on Ebola:

As you may know by now, I am a serial debunker of alarm and it usually serves me in good stead. On the threat posed by diseases, I’ve been resolutely sceptical of exaggerated scares about bird flu and I once won a bet that mad cow disease would never claim more than 100 human lives a year when some “experts” were forecasting tens of thousands (it peaked at 28 in 2000). I’ve drawn attention to the steadily falling mortality from malaria and Aids.

The coup d'etat of 1714 - when the Whigs won

Was an English Enlightenment delayed by the Hanoverian succession?

I have a piece in the latest Spectator on the tercentenary of King George I:

Priorities and goals for aid

Choosing what to put in place of the Millennium Development Goals

My recent essay in the Wall Street Journal discusses how to prioritise development aid:

In September next year, the United Nations plans to choose a list of development goals for the world to meet by the year 2030. What aspirations should it set for this global campaign to improve the lot of the poor, and how should it choose them?

Renewable energy is not working

Too much cost, not enough output or too little emissions reduction

My Times Column explores why renewable energy has been so disappointing.

On Saturday my train was diverted by engineering works near Doncaster. We trundled past some shiny new freight wagons decorated with a slogan: “Drax — powering tomorrow: carrying sustainable biomass for cost-effective renewable power”. Serendipitously, I was at that moment reading a report by the chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the burning of wood in Yorkshire power stations such as Drax. And I was feeling vindicated.

A year ago I wrote in these pages that it made no sense for the consumer to subsidise the burning of American wood in place of coal, since wood produces more carbon dioxide for each kilowatt-hour of electricity. The forests being harvested would take four to ten decades to regrow, and this is the precise period over which we are supposed to expect dangerous global warming to emerge. It makes no sense to steal beetles’ lunch, transport it halfway round the world, burning diesel as you do so, and charge hard-pressed consumers double the price for the power it generates.

Atheists and Anglicans could unite against intolerance

Segregating schoolchildren by faith is a bad idea

My Times column is on religion in schools:

We now know from Peter Clarke’s report, published today but leaked last week, that there was indeed “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamist ethos into some schools” in Birmingham.

Whistleblowers first approached the British Humanist Association in January with such allegations, weeks before the appearance of the Trojan Horse letter. The BHA (of which I should declare I am a “distinguished supporter” though I’ve never done much to deserve this accolade) properly passed on the information to the Department for Education.

On Slippery Slopes

Arguments against reproductive technologies appeal to a false analogy

My Times column tackles the misleading metaphor of the slippery slope:

Who first thought up the metaphor of the slippery slope? It’s a persistent meme, invoked in many a debate about ethics, not least over the assisted dying bill for which I expect to vote in the House of Lords on Friday. But in practice, ethical slopes are not slippery; if anything they are sometimes too sticky.

The BBC and balance

The broadcaster bowing to pressure from green activists

My Times column on the BBC's unbalanced environmental coverage:

The BBC’s behaviour grows ever more bizarre. Committed by charter to balanced reporting, it has now decided formally that it was wrong to allow balance in a debate between rival guesses about the future. In rebuking itself for having had the gall to interview Nigel Lawson on the Today programme about climate change earlier this year, it issued a statement containing this gem: “Lord Lawson’s views are not supported by the evidence from computer modelling and scientific research.”

The evidence from computer modelling? The phrase is an oxymoron. A model cannot, by definition, provide evidence: it can provide a prediction to test against real evidence. In the debate in question, Lord Lawson said two things: it was not possible to attribute last winter’s heavy rain to climate change with any certainty, and the global surface temperature has not warmed in the past 15 to 17 years. He was right about both, as his debate opponent, Sir Brian Hoskins, confirmed.

Fat and fattening: exploding the myths

The flimsy evidence behind low-fat diets

GM crops are good for the environment

Fighting pests with genes is better than fighting them with sprays

More growth, less warming

The only way to get dangerous global warming is to assume stagnation

Here's a version of the article I published in the Financial Post this week with added links:

The debate over climate change is horribly polarized. From the way it is conducted, you would think that only two positions are possible: that the whole thing is a hoax or that catastrophe is inevitable. In fact there is room for lots of intermediate positions, including the view I hold, which is that man-made climate change is real but not likely to do much harm, let alone prove to be the greatest crisis facing humankind this century.

Property rights underground

Too few property rights at sea, too many underground

My Times column was on when property rights are too strong; though in other cases they are too weak.

The government is consulting on whether to amend the law so that you cannot stop a gas or geothermal company from drilling a horizontal well a mile beneath your house, though you can get paid for it. Lord Jenkin of Roding last week pointed out that, under the common law, ownership of your plot reaches “up to Heaven and down to Hades”. Is the government justified in weakening this aspect of your property rights below a depth of 300 metres?

Income inequality is falling, globally

The poor are getting less poor

My Times column on inequality:

There was a row last week between the “rock star economist” Thomas Piketty and Chris Giles of theFinancial Times over statistics on inequalities in wealth — in this country in particular. When the dust settled, the upshot seemed to be that in Britain wealth inequality probably did inch up between 1980 and 2010, but not by as much as Piketty had claimed, though it depends on which data sets you trust.

Well, knock me down with a feather. You mean to say that during three decades when the government encouraged asset bubbles in house prices; gave tax breaks to pensions; lightly taxed wealthy non-doms; poured money into farm subsidies; and severely restricted the supply of land for housing, pushing up the premium earned by planning permission for development, the wealthy owners of capital saw their relative wealth increase slightly? Well, I’ll be damned.

Sometimes it is right to wipe out a species

The world is better off without smallpox, polio, guinea worm, dengue mosquitoes

My Times column is on the eradication of diseases and the resurrection fo extinct species. Both interferences with nature would be a good thing.

The World Health Organisation’s annual assembly decided on Saturday evening not to set a date to destroy the last two remaining samples of smallpox virus kept in secure laboratories in Atlanta and Novosibirsk. Smallpox, being a virus, does not really count as a living species. But the prospect of the deliberate extinction of some harmful species is getting closer. Be in no doubt — it would be an unambiguously good thing.

Smallpox was eradicated outside laboratories in 1977, when Ali Maow Maalin recovered from the disease in Merca, Somalia (he died last year of malaria). Until now researchers have wanted to keep the virus alive in the laboratory just in case they need to study it further. Pretty well everybody now agrees that the risk of keeping the virus is greater than the risk of not keeping it. Remember that the last case of smallpox was the death of Janet Parker, a medical photographer, in Birmingham in 1978, who caught it from a laboratory.

Oh for politicians who value social AND economic freedom

Is a political realignment in the offing?

My Times column on the politics of liberty:

As the Ukip campaign ploughs steadily farther off the rails into the anti-immigrant bushes, in search presumably of former British National Party voters, it becomes ever easier for small-government, classical liberals — like me — to resist its allure. Nigel Farage once advocated flat taxes, drug decriminalisation and spending cuts. Now his party has dropped the flat tax, opposes zero-hours contracts, is hostile to gay marriage and talks about subsidising farmers and growing the defence budget.

Meanwhile, the Conservative party has probably never been so socially tolerant, or the Labour party so socially reactionary, as they are today. Is a great realignment possible, with the old Gladstonian coalition of economic free-marketers and social liberals gradually re-emerging, with Labour, Ukip, the Greens and the Lib Dems left appealing to those who fear change?

Race, genes and recent evolution

Collaboration between brains matter more than individual intelligence

My Times column on the implications of genetic evolution since races diverged:

Is it necessary to believe that racial differences are small and skin-deep in order not to be a racist? For the first half of the last century, science generally exaggerated stereotypes of racial difference in behaviour and assumed that they were innate and immutable. For the second half, science generally asserted that there were no differences — save the obvious, visible ones — and used this argument to combat prejudice.

Yet that second premise is becoming increasingly untenable in the genomic era as more details emerge of human genetic diversity. We will have to justify equal treatment using something other than identity of nature. Fortunately, it’s easily done.

The coerced consensus

Lennart Bengtsson's treatment shows how climate sceptics are silenced

My Thunderer column in the Times on the bullying of a distinguished climate scientist for having the temerity to advise those who doubt the speed of climate change:

[update: links repaired below]

Lennart Bengtsson is about as distinguished as climate scientists get. His decision two weeks ago to join the academic advisory board (on which I also sit, unremunerated) of Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation was greeted with fury by many fellow climate scientists. Now in a McCarthyite move — his analogy — they have bullied him into resigning by refusing to collaborate with him unless he leaves.

E-cigarettes are making tobacco obsolete, so why ban them?

Smoking will go the way of the top hat and the crinoline

Very well, alone

This planet and its moon are so peculiar, maybe there are none like it

My Times column on the Lucky Planet theory:

We may be unique and alone in the Universe, not because we are special but because we are lucky. By “we”, I mean not just the human race, but intelligent life itself. A fascinating book published last week has changed my mind about this mighty question, and I would like to change yours. The key argument concerns the Moon, which makes it an appropriate topic for a bank holiday Moonday.

David Waltham, of Royal Holloway, University of London, is the author of the very readable Lucky Planet, which argues that the Earth is probably rare, perhaps even unique, as planets go. He is also a self-confessed “moon bore” who has made important discoveries about how the Moon formed.

Technology is often the mother of science, not vice versa

Britain is good at science, but poor at turning technology into industry

My Times column is on the relationshio between science and technology, especially in the UK:

The chancellor, George Osborne, made a speech on science in Cambridge last week in which he contrasted Britain’s “extraordinary” scientific achievements with “our historic weakness when it comes to translating those scientific achievements into commercial gain”. It’s a recurring complaint in British science policy that we discover things, then others make money out of them.

Britain’s astonishing ability to gather scientific firsts — we are second only to the US in Nobel prizes — shows no sign of abating. We have won 88 scientific Nobel prizes, 115 if you add economics, literature and peace. This includes 12 in the past ten years and at least one in each of the past five years. But we filed fewer patents last year than the US, Japan, Germany, France, China or South Korea, and we have seen many British discoveries commercialised by others: graphene, DNA sequencing, the worldwide web, to name a few. So yes, we are good at science but bad at founding new industries.

Why most resources don't run out

Economists versus ecologists and the limits to growth

My Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal on resources and why they get more abundant, not less:

How many times have you heard that we humans are "using up" the world's resources, "running out" of oil, "reaching the limits" of the atmosphere's capacity to cope with pollution or "approaching the carrying capacity" of the land's ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff—metals, oil, clean air, land—and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.

"We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast—by 2030, even two planets will not be enough," says Jim Leape, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (formerly the World Wildlife Fund).

We can't wreck the climate unless we get rich, but if we get rich, we won't wreck the climate

The Paradox behind assumptions of economic growth

My Times column is on economic projections for the year 2100.

In the past 50 years, world per capita income roughly trebled in real terms, corrected for inflation. If it continues at this rate (and globally the great recession of recent years was a mere blip) then it will be nine times as high in 2100 as it was in 2000, at which point the average person in the world will be earning three times as much as the average Briton earns today.

I make this point partly to cheer you up on Easter Monday about the prospects for your great-grandchildren, partly to start thinking about what that world will be like if it were to happen, and partly to challenge those who say with confidence that the future will be calamitous because of climate change or environmental degradation. The curious thing is that they only predict disaster by assuming great enrichment. But perversely, the more enrichment they predict, the greater the chance (they also predict) that we will solve our environmental problems.

Britain's employment and productivity puzzle

Unemployment rose less then fell faster than expected

My column in last week's Times was on the rise in employment, reforms to welfare and the productivity puzzle in Britain:

Successful innovations are sometimes low-tech: corrugated iron, for example, or the word “OK”. In this vein, as Iain Duncan Smith will say in a speech today in South London, a single piece of paper seems to be making quite a difference to Britain’s unemployment problem. It’s called the “claimant commitment” and it has been rolling out to job centres since October last year; by the end of this month it will be universal.

A rough ride to the future

James Lovelock recants his alarmism

My review for The Times of James Lovelock's new book, A Rough Ride to the Future.

This book reveals that James Lovelock, at 94, has not lost his sparkling intelligence, his lucid prose style, or his cheerful humanity. May Gaia grant that we all have such talents in our tenth decades, because the inventor of gadgets and eco-visionary has lived long enough to recant some of the less sensible views he espoused in his eighties.

Adapting to climate change

Global warming looks like it will be cheaper to cope with than to prevent

My Spectator article on the IPCC's new emphasis on adaptation:

Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it. Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation and focus instead on ‘mitigation’ — the misleading term for preventing carbon dioxide emissions.

That has now changed. The received wisdom on global warming, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was updated this week. The newspapers were, as always, full of stories about scientists being even more certain of environmental Armageddon. But the document itself revealed a far more striking story: it emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt to climate change. Even in the main text of the press release that accompanied the report, the word ‘adaptation’ occurred ten times, the word ‘mitigation’ not at all.

The Tyranny of Experts

Easterly's book on aid and autocracy

My review of William Easterly's book The Tyranny of Experts for The Times:

Imagine, writes the economist William Easterly, that in 2010 more than 20,000 farmers in rural Ohio had been forced from their land by soldiers, their cows slaughtered, their harvest torched and one of their sons killed — all to make way for a British forestry project, financed and promoted by the World Bank. Imagine that when the story broke, the World Bank promised an investigation that never happened.

There is no simple explanation for the missing airliner

Only implausible explanations remain

My Times column is on the missing airliner and Occam's razor.

The tragic disappearance of all 239 people on board flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean has one really peculiar feature to it: none of the possible explanations is remotely plausible, yet one of them must be true.

Muting the alarm on climate change

Even with exaggerated assumptions of sensitivity, the IPCC has to down-grade alarm

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will shortly publish the second part of its latest report, on the likely impact of climate change. Government representatives are meeting with scientists in Japan to sex up—sorry, rewrite—a summary of the scientists' accounts of storms, droughts and diseases to come. But the actual report, known as AR5-WGII, is less frightening than its predecessor seven years ago.

The 2007 report was riddled with errors about Himalayan glaciers, the Amazon rain forest, African agriculture, water shortages and other matters, all of which erred in the direction of alarm. This led to a critical appraisal of the report-writing process from a council of national science academies, some of whose recommendations were simply ignored.

Others, however, hit home. According to leaks, this time the full report is much more cautious and vague about worsening cyclones, changes in rainfall, climate-change refugees, and the overall cost of global warming.

Technology creates jobs as much as it destroys them

It's a good thing we don't all have to dig the fields by hand

My Times column is on technology and jobs:

Bill Gates voiced a thought in a speech last week that is increasingly troubling America’s technical elite — that technology is about to make many, many people redundant. Advances in software, he said, will reduce demand for jobs, substituting robots for drivers, waiters or nurses.

The last time that I was in Silicon Valley I found the tech-heads fretting about this in direct proportion to their optimism about technology. That is to say, the more excited they are that the “singularity” is near — the moment when computers become so clever at making themselves even cleverer that the process accelerates to infinity — the more worried they are that there will be mass unemployment as a result.

The tyranny of experts

William Easterly's new book explores the aid industry's autocratic instincts

My book review for The Times of William Easterly's new book "The Tyranny of Experts"

Imagine, writes the economist William Easterly, that in 2010 more than 20,000 farmers in rural Ohio had been forced from their land by soldiers, their cows slaughtered, their harvest torched and one of their sons killed — all to make way for a British forestry project, financed and promoted by the World Bank. Imagine that when the story broke, the World Bank promised an investigation that never happened.

The good news you don't hear about diseases

Malaria, TB and Aids are in steady retreat

My Times column is on malaria, TB and Aids -- all in steady decline, a fact that officials and journalists seem reluctant to report:

There’s a tendency among public officials and journalists, when they discuss disease, to dress good news up as bad. My favourite example was a BBC website headline from 2004 when mortality from the human form of mad-cow disease, which had been falling for two years, rose from 16 to 17 cases: “Figures show rise in vCJD deaths” wailed the headline. (The incidence fell to eight the next year and zero by 2012, unreported.) Talk about grasping at straws of pessimism.

Smoking (and European regulation) kills

E-cigarettes deserve encouragement as a lesser evil

My Times column is on harm reduction, Swedish snus and e-cigarettes:

Is this the end of smoking? Not if the bureaucrats can help it.

Sweden’s reputation for solving policy problems, from education to banking, is all the rage. The Swedes are also ahead of the rest of Europe in tackling smoking. They have by far the fewest smokers per head of population of all EU countries. Lung cancer mortality in Swedish men over 35 is less than half the British rate.

The sceptics are right. Don't scapegoat them.

Floods and gales in the UK are not evidence of climate change

This is my column in the Times this week. I have added some updates in the text and below.

In the old days we would have drowned a witch to stop the floods. These days the Green Party, Greenpeace and Ed Miliband demand we purge the climate sceptics. No insult is too strong for sceptics these days: they are “wilfully ignorant” (Ed Davey), “headless chickens” (the Prince of Wales) or “flat-earthers” (Lord Krebs), with “diplomas in idiocy” (one of my fellow Times columnists).

Science discovers new ignorance about the past

Genes generate new mysteries about prehistory

My recent Times column on new discoveries in the history of our species:

It is somehow appropriate that the 850,000-year-old footprints found on a beach in Norfolk last May, and announced last week, have since been washed away. Why? Because the ephemeral nature of that extraordinary discovery underlines the ever-changing nature of scientific knowledge. Science is not a catalogue of known facts; it is the discovery of new forms of ignorance.

For those who thought they knew the history of the human species, the past few years have been especially humbling. There has been a torrent of surprising discoveries that has washed away an awful lot of what we thought we knew, leaving behind both much more knowledge and many more questions.

Do people mind more about inequality than poverty?

Few people know that global inequality is falling and so is poverty

My Times column this week was on the facts behind the inequality debate:

The Swedish data impresario Hans Rosling recently asked some British people to estimate the average number of births per woman in Bangladesh and gave them four possible answers. Just 12 per cent got the right answer (2.5), whereas 25 per cent of chimpanzees would have got it right if the answers had been written on four bananas from which they could choose one at random. Remarkably, university-educated Britons did worse, not better, than non-graduates. It is not so much what you don’t know as what you know that isn’t so.

Hold that thought while I introduce you to Tom Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former husband of the crime writer Danielle Steel, who stirred up fury in America when he wrote to The Wall Street Journal last month complaining about a rising tide of hatred against the very rich, and indirectly but crassly comparing it to Kristallnacht. A few days later President Obama used his State of the Union speech to take aim at inequality. In this country, too, inequality is one thing that much rankles with most people, as the 50 per cent tax rate row reveals.

Cherry picking and the tale of the Siberian larch trees

Stephen McIntyre responds to Keith Briffa's allegations

This is Stephen McIntyre’s response to me, commenting on the letters from Professor Keith Briffa to the Times in response to my column on the widespread problem of withheld adverse data. It makes very clear that my account was accurate, that my account was mischaracterized by Professor Briffa in serious ways, and that nothing in his letters refutes my original claim that had a key dataset not been ignored, a very much less striking result would have been published. Professor Briffa now says he was reprocessing the data, but in 2009 he said “we simply did not consider these data at this time”. Neither explanation fits the known facts well.

I therefore stand by my story.

My original intention in mentioning this example, chosen from many in climate science of the same phenomenon, was to draw attention to the fact that non-publication of adverse data is not a problem confined to the pharmaceutical industry, but also occurs in government-funded, policy-relevant areas of academic science.

Why is polygamy declining?

President Hollande's affair and the triumph of human monogamy

My recent Times column was on human monogamy:

The tragic death of an Indian minister’s wife and the overdose of a French president’s “wife” give a startling insight into the misery that infidelity causes in a monogamous society. In cultures like India and France, it is just not possible for men to reap the sexual rewards that usually attend arrival at the top of society. President Zuma of South Africa has four wives and 20 children, while one Nigerian preacher is said to have 86 wives. Chinese emperors used to complain of their relentless sexual duties. Why the difference?

China's one-child policy was inspired by western greens

A missile scientist and the "Limits to Growth"

As China’s one-child policy comes officially to an end, it is time to write the epitaph on this horrible experiment — part of the blame for which lies, surprisingly, in the West and with green, rather than red, philosophy. The policy has left China with a demographic headache: in the mid-2020s its workforce will plummet by 10 million a year, while the number of the elderly rises at a similar rate.

The difficulty and cruelty of enforcing a one-child policy was borne out by two stories last week. The Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who directed the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008, has been fined more than £700,000 for having three children, while another young woman has come forward with her story (from only two years ago) of being held down and forced to have an abortion at seven months when her second pregnancy was detected by the authorities.

It has been a crime in China to remove an intra-uterine device inserted at the behest of the authorities, and a village can be punished for not reporting an illegally pregnant inhabitant.

The real risks of cherry picking scientific data

The sin of omission of inconvenient results

My Times column is on the dangers of omitting inconvenient results:

Perhaps it should be called Tamiflugate. Yet the doubts reported by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last week go well beyond the possible waste of nearly half a billion pounds on a flu drug that might not be much better than paracetamol. All sorts of science are contaminated with the problem of cherry-picked data.

The Tamiflu tale is that some years ago the pharmaceutical company Roche produced evidence that persuaded the World Health Organisation that Tamiflu was effective against flu, and governments such as ours began stockpiling the drug in readiness for a pandemic. But then a Japanese scientist pointed out that most of the clinical trials on the drug had not been published. It appears that the unpublished ones generally showed less impressive results than the published ones.

The Anglosphere's long shadow

Daniel Hannan argues that bottom-up liberty has deep roots

My Times column of 30 December 2013:

It was only five years ago that “Anglo-Saxon” economics was discredited and finished. Continental or Chinese capitalism, dirigiste and heavily regulated, was the future. Yet here’s the Centre for Economics and Business Research last week saying that Britain is on course to remain the sixth or seventh biggest economy until 2028, by when it is poised to pass Germany, mainly for demographic reasons. Three others of the top ten will be its former colonies: the US, India and Canada.

Even today, of the IMF’s top ten countries by per capita income, four are part of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — the United States, Canada, Australia and Singapore, (Hong Kong would be there too if it were a country). Apart from Switzerland, all of the others are small city- or petro-states: San Marino, Brunei, Qatar, Luxembourg, Norway. It appears that we ain’t dead yet.

The civilising process

Norbert Elias explains how moral standards change

My Times column, December 23, 2013:

There is a common thread running through many recent stories: paedophilia at Caldicott prep school and in modern Rochdale, the murders of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and by Sergeant Alexander Blackman in Afghanistan, perhaps even segregation of student audiences and opposition to the badger cull. The link is that people are left stranded by changing moral standards, because morality is always evolving.

Is there life on Europa?

Who's on the committee to deal with it if there is?

My Times column on how earthlings communicate with life in space:

The Hubble telescope has revealed that Europa, a moon of Jupiter, has fountains of water vapour near one of its poles, which means its ocean might not always be hermetically sealed by miles-thick ice, as previously assumed.

Europa’s huge ocean, being probably liquid beneath the ice, has long been the place in space thought most favourable to life, so the prospect of sampling this Jovian pond for bugs comes a little closer. My concern is a touch more mundane. Who’s in charge of the response down here when we do find life in space?

Medicinal regulation of vaping could kill people

E-cigarettes are mainly used to quit smoking - don't stifle them

My recent speech in the House of Lords on the dangers of too much regulatory precaution over electronic cigarettes has sparked a huge amount of interest among "vapers". I am reprinting the speech here as a blog:

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Astor, on securing this debate. It is an issue of much greater importance than the sparse attendance might imply and one that is growing in importance. I have no interest to declare in electronic cigarettes: I dislike smoking and have never done it. I have only once tried a puff on an e-cigarette, which did nothing for me. I am interested in this issue as a counterproductive application of the precautionary principle. I should say that I am indebted to Ian Gregory of Centaurus Communications for some of the facts and figures that I will cite shortly.

There are, at the moment, about 1 million people in this country using electronic cigarettes, and there has been an eightfold increase in the past year in the number of people using them to try to quit smoking. Already, 15% of ex-smokers have tried them, and they have overtaken nicotine patches and other approaches to become the top method of quitting in a very short time. The majority of those who use electronic cigarettes to try to quit smoking say that they are successful.

Heritable IQ is a sign of social mobility

Paradoxical features of the genetics of intelligence

My fellow Times writer the cricketer Ed Smith posed me a very good question the other day. How many of the people born in the world in 1756 could have become Mozart? (My answer, by the way, was four.) So here’s a similar question: how many Britons born in 1964, if educated at Eton and Balliol, could have achieved what Boris Johnson has achieved? It’s clearly not all of them; it’s probably not one; but it’s not a big number.

My point? There is little doubt that Boris Johnson is a highly intelligent man, notwithstanding his inability to cope with a radio ambush of IQ test questions, and that he would be a highly intelligent man even if he had not gone to Eton and Balliol — barring extreme deprivation or injury.

The recent burst of interest in IQ, sparked first by Dominic Cummings (Michael Gove’s adviser), and then by Boris, has been encouraging in one sense. As Robert Plomin, probably the world’s leading expert on the genetics of intelligence, put it to me, there used to be a kneejerk reaction along the lines of “you can’t measure intelligence”, or “it couldn’t possibly be genetic”. This time the tone is more like: “Of course, there is some genetic influence on intelligence but . . .”

Gas and oil prices may soon fall

If they do, renewable energy will look even worse

My Times column was on the likely effect of weaker oil and gas prices on competitiveness:

The Chancellor is to knock £50 off the average energy bill by replacing some green levies with general taxation and extending the timescale for rolling out others. On the face of it, the possibility that global energy prices may start to fall over the next few years might seem like good political news for him, and some of the chicken entrails do seem to be pointing in that direction. There is, however, a political danger to George Osborne in such trends .

For Government strategists reeling from the twin blows of Ed Miliband’s economically illiterate but politically astute promise of an energy bill freeze and the energy companies’ price hikes, the prospect of lower wholesale energy prices might seem heaven sent. But in many ways it only exacerbates their problems, for the Government is right now fixing the prices we will have to pay for nuclear, wind and biomass power for decades to come. And it is fixing those prices at quite a high level.

Immigration versus social cohesion?

The elite benefit, so it's becoming a leftish issue

My Times column is on immigration:

It looks as if David Cameron is determined not to emulate Tony Blair over European immigration. Faced with opinion polls showing that tightening immigration is top of the list of concerns that voters want the Prime Minister to negotiate with Europe, he is going to fight to keep a Romanian and Bulgarian influx out as Mr Blair did not for Poles in 2004. It is the ideal ground for him to pick a fight with Brussels.

One reason is that he now has more political cover on the issue of immigration. It is no longer nearly as “right wing” an issue as it once was, though popular enough with UKIP voters. Migration as a political issue seems itself to be migrating across the political spectrum from right to centre, if not left. Where once any kind of opposition to immigration was seen by left-wing parties and the BBC as just a proxy for racism, increasingly it is now a subject for real debate.

Spectator Australia diary

Home thoughts from abroad

After my recent visit to Australia I wrote the diary column in the Australian edition of the Spectator:

I flew from London into Sydney, then Melbourne, to make three dinner speeches in a row. Through nerves I never finished the main course of three dinners. Pity, because in my experience Australian food is as fine as anywhere in the world: fresher than American, more orientally influenced than France and more imaginative than Britain. That was certainly not true the first time I visited Australia 37 years ago, when I slept in youth hostels and Ansett Pioneer buses, and ate rib-eye steaks for breakfast. I still remember with horror the moment I realized I had left my wallet on a park bench in Alice Springs, dazed after 31 hours on a bus. I went back and it was still there, wet from a lawn sprinkler.

Like Britain, Australia’s been confronting the costs of climate policies. The Abbott government has begun to deal with them robustly, whereas in Britain we are still in denial. Our opposition leader Ed Miliband has promised to “freeze” energy bills for two years if he gets into power – a threat that probably caused companies to push them up now -- even though it was he as Energy and Climate Change secretary who did most to load green levies on to consumers. Conservatively it looks like his Climate Act of 2008, with its targets for carbon emission cuts, will cost us £300 billion by 2030 in subsidies to renewable energy, in the cost of connecting wind farms to the grid, in VAT, in costs of insulation and new domestic appliances, and in the effect of all this on prices of goods in the shops. If people are upset about the cost of energy now, they will be furious by the election in 2015. I don’t like to say “I told you so”, but I did, in my maiden speech in the House of Lords in May: “One reason why we in this country are falling behind the growth of the rest of the world is that in recent years we have had a policy of deliberately driving up the price of energy.” David Cameron should take note that Tony Abbott is the first world leader elected by a landslide after expressing open skepticism about the exaggerated claims of imminent and dangerous climate change. Nor can greens argue that the issue was peripheral. The carbon tax was what won Mr Abbott his party’s leadership, and it was front and central in the election campaign. More and more politicians will be finding out that defending green levies on energy bills is more of an electoral liability than doubting dangerous climate change.

Don't shoot the messenger

Reply to a misleading article in the Guardian

I have the following letter in the Guardian (online).

While preaching to others to be accurate, John Abraham is himself inaccurate in his critique of me ( Global warming and business reporting – can business news organizations achieve less than zero?, 18 November, In correcting one mistake he made – by changing 3.6C to 3.6F – you only exacerbate the problem. Far from it being "unbelievable" that up to 3.6F of warming will be beneficial, this is actually the conclusion of those studies that have addressed the issue, as confirmed in recent surveys by Professor Richard Tol. Mr Abraham may not agree with those studies, but in that case he is departing from the consensus and should give reasons rather than merely stating that he finds them unbelievable. Rather than shoot the messenger, he should invite readers to read Professor Tol's most recent paper. It is published in an excellent book edited by Bjørn Lomborg entitled How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?

As for Andrew Dessler's critique of my remarks about feedback by water vapour and clouds, his actual words confirm that I am right that these issues are still in doubt, as confirmed by the latest report from the IPCC. Most of your readers are probably unaware of the fact that doubling carbon dioxide in itself only produces a modest warming effect of about 1.2C and that to get dangerous warming requires feedbacks from water vapour, clouds and other phenomena for which the evidence is far more doubtful. This is an area of honest disagreement between commentators, so it is misleading of Mr Abraham to shoot the messenger again.

The Frackers

Review of a book on the people who made the shale gas revolution

My review of Gregory Zuckerman's book The Frackers appeared in The Times on 23 November.

In the long tradition of serendipitous mistakes that led to great discoveries, we can now add a key moment in 1997. Nick Steinsberger, an engineer with Mitchell Energy, was supervising the hydraulic fracturing of a gas well near Fort Worth, Texas, when he noticed that the gel and chemicals in the “fracking fluid” were not mixing properly. So the stuff being pumped underground to crack the rock was too watery, not as gel-like as it should be.

Steinsberger noticed something else, though. Despite the mistake in mixing the fracking fluid, the well was producing a respectable amount of gas. Over a beer at a baseball game a few weeks later he mentioned it to a friend from a rival company who said they had had good results with watery fracks elsewhere. Steinsberger attempted to persuade his bosses to try removing nearly all the chemicals from the fluid and using mostly water. They thought he was mad since everybody knew that, while water might open cracks in sandstone, in clay-containing shale it would seal them shut as the clay swelled.

When political tyranny allows economic freedom

China's growth comes not from dirigisme, but from low-level freedoms

I know very little about what is being discussed inside the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist party, which started at the weekend. The meeting is being held in secret — although one of the subjects to be discussed is said to be greater government transparency. About all we know is that “unprecedented” economic and social reforms are being discussed, including such things as rural property rights. But, to judge by a new wave of Mao worship, persecution of dissidents and reinforced censorship, political reform is less likely than economic.

In other words, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to continue pulling off the trick that has served it ever since Deng Xiaoping defeated the Gang of Four: more economic freedom combined with less political freedom. The people can choose any good or service they want — except their government. In many ways it has worked extremely well. In 1978 Maoism had left the country horribly poor: more than half the people of China tried to live on less than a dollar a day. Over the next nine years per capita income doubled, then doubled again over the nine years after that.

Many a left-leaning Western politician has been heard to muse about how much better we would grow if only we directed the market economy with the single-mindedness of the Chinese Communist Party. In the same way many a right-leaning Western politician has long admired the Singapore of Lee Kwan Yew on the same grounds. See, they mutter, a paternalistic government is best at generating economic prosperity.

Explaining the steep decline in the frequency of fires

In the UK, 40% fewer emergencies of all kinds for the fire service than ten years ago

This morning’s brief strike by the Fire Brigades Union, like the one last Friday evening, will, I suspect, mostly serve to remind those who work in the private sector just how well remunerated many in the public sector still are. The union objects to the raising of the retirement age from 55 to 60, on a generous final-salary pension scheme, with good job security. These are conditions few of those who work for private firms or for themselves can even dream of.

In my case, as somebody always on the look-out for under-reported good news stories, it also served to alert me to just how dramatic the fall in “demand” for firefighters has been. Intrigued by the strike, I looked up the numbers and found to my amazement that in 2011, compared with just a decade before, firefighters attended 48 per cent fewer fires overall; 39 per cent fewer building fires; 44 per cent fewer minor outdoor fires; 24 per cent fewer road-traffic collisions; 8 per cent fewer floods — and 40 per cent fewer incidents overall. The decline has if anything accelerated since 2011.

That is to say, during a period when the population and the number of buildings grew, we needed to call the fire brigade much, much less. Most important of all, the number of people dying in fires in the home has fallen by 60 per cent compared with the 1980s. The credit for these benign changes goes at least partly to technology — fire-retardant materials, self-extinguishing cigarettes, smoke alarms, sprinklers, alarms on cookers — much of which was driven by sensible regulation. Fewer open fires and fewer people smoking, especially indoors, must have helped too. There is little doubt that rules about such things have saved lives, as even most libertarians must concede.

Storms are becoming ever more survivable

A big wind hitting Britain today does less harm than in past centuries

My Times article on the storm that was to hit Britain on 28 October. In the event, four or five people died. Disruption to transport lasted only a few days.

If you are reading this with the hatches battened down, it may not be much comfort to know that 2013 has been an unusually quiet year for big storms. For the first time in 45 years no hurricane above Category 1 has made landfall from the Atlantic by this date, and only two in that category, confounding an official US government forecast of six to nine hurricanes in the Atlantic, three to five of which would be big. Even if the last month of the hurricane season is bad, it will have been a quiet year.

Why nuclear power costs so much

Regulation has driven up the price

My Times article:

The real problem with nuclear power is the scale of it. After decades of cost inflation, driven mostly by regulations to redouble safety, 1600 megawatt monsters cost so much and take so long to build that only governments can afford to borrow the money to build them. Since Britain borrowing £14 billion extra is not really an option, then we have to find somebody else’s nationalized industry to do it, and guarantee high returns, as if it were a big PFI contract.

Offshore white elephants

Britain leads the world in offshore wind -- because nobody else is so foolish

The net benefits of climate change till 2080

Few people know that warming is doing more good than harm

My Spectator cover story on the net benefits of climate change.

I will post rebuttals to the articles that criticised this piece below.

Don't discourage vaping

Don't treat e-cigarettes as medicines; glamorise them

My Times column tackles an egregious example of regulation doing more harm than good:

Should shampoo be classified as a medicine and prescribed by doctors? It can, after all, cause harm: it can sting your eyes and a recent study found traces of carcinogens in 98 shampoo products. Sure, shampoo can clean hair if used responsibly. But what’s to stop cowboy shampoo makers selling dangerous shampoo to the young? Far too many shampoo manufacturers try to glamorize their product. Time for the state to step in.

The inexorable nature of technological progress

Economic growth means the time it takes to do something falls

My recent Times column on Moore's Law, technological progress and economic growth:

The law that has changed our lives most in the past 50 years may be about to be repealed, even though it was never even on the statute book. I am referring to Moore’s Law, which decrees — well, observes — that a given amount of computing power halves in cost every two years.

Robert Colwell, the former chief architect at Intel and head of something with a very long name in the US Government (honestly, you’d turn the page if I spelt it out, though now I’ve taken up even more space not telling you; maybe I will put it at the end), made a speech recently saying that in less than a decade, Moore’s Law will come to a halt.

Global lukewarming need not be catastrophic

Climate change could be real but do less harm than climate policy

Cheap energy or green energy - you cannot have both

Ed Miliband insists on trebling and freezing prices at the same time

My regular Times column from 26th September 2013:

Hypocrisy can be a beautiful thing when done well. To go, as Ed Miliband has done, within four years, from being the minister insisting that energy prices must rise — so uncompetitive green energy producers can be enticed to supply power — to being the opposition leader calling for energy prices to be frozen is a breathtaking double axel that would make Torvill and Dean envious.

Remember this is the very architect of our current energy policy, the man who steered the suicidally expensive Climate Change Act through Parliament; the man who even this week pledged to decarbonise the entire British economy (not just the electricity sector) by 2030, meaning that nobody will be permitted to heat their house with gas.

Bill Bryson's 1927

Book review of a fine account of one summer

My review in The Times of Bill Bryson's fine book, "One Summer".

The summer of 1927 in the United States seems at first glance an odd subject for a book. We all know what happened in 1914, or 1929, but what’s so special about the 86th anniversary of one summer in one country? You can see the London publishers scratching their heads when Bill Bryson’s pitch arrived. Who was Jack Dempsey anyway? Is Babe Ruth a woman or a child? Isn’t Calvin Coolidge a cartoon character? Did Herbert Hoover invent the vacuum cleaner? Is Sacco and Vanzetti a department store? Charles Lindbergh: ah, we know who he is.

Actually, it’s a brilliant idea for a book, because Bryson now had the excuse to do what he does best: tell little biographies of historical figures, recount stories, paint word pictures and make witty asides. The result is a gripping slice of history with all sorts of reverberant echoes of today.

Why are there so few people over 115 years of age? (One)

Rapid increases in numbers reaching 100, but no change in record lifespan

My Times column on how the world's oldest people are getting younger:

The two oldest men in the world died recently. Jiroemon Kimura, a 116-year-old, died in June in Japan after becoming the oldest man yet recorded. His successor Salustiano Sanchez, aged 112 and born in Spain, died last week in New York State. That leaves just two men in the world known to be over 110, compared with 58 women (19 of whom are Japanese, 20 American). By contrast there are now half a million people over 100, and the number is growing at 7 per cent a year.

For all the continuing improvements in average life expectancy, the maximum age of human beings seems to be stuck. It’s still very difficult even for women to get to 110 and the number of people who reach 115 seems if anything to be falling. According to Professor Stephen Coles, of the Gerontology Research Group at University of California, Los Angeles, your probability of dying each year shoots up to 50 per cent once you reach 110 and 70 per cent at 115.

Dialling back the alarm on climate change

Global warming could be a net benefit during this century

My article in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal:

Later this month, a long-awaited event that last happened in 2007 will recur. Like a returning comet, it will be taken to portend ominous happenings. I refer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) "fifth assessment report," part of which will be published on Sept. 27.

There have already been leaks from this 31-page document, which summarizes 1,914 pages of scientific discussion, but thanks to a senior climate scientist, I have had a glimpse of the key prediction at the heart of the document. The big news is that, for the first time since these reports started coming out in 1990, the new one dials back the alarm. It states that the temperature rise we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide is lower than the IPPC thought in 2007.

Falling population, more wilderness in 2100

Sir David Attenborough's pessimism is misplaced

Ronald Coase

The economist, the market and the environment

My tribute to Ronald Coase, who has died aged 102, in The Times:

It’s not often that the ideas of a 102-year-old have as much relevance to the future as the past. But the death this week of Ronald Coase, one of the world’s most cited economists, comes at a time when there is lively debate about the very issue he raised: why neither markets nor government are panaceas.

Torn between freedom and security

I don't know if tyranny or terrorism is the greater threat

Belatedly, here is my Times column from last week on the case of David Miranda's detention at Heathrow airport:

I am not usually an indecisive person who sees both sides of a question. But the case of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda versus the British and US governments has me swinging like a weathervane in a squall between liberty and security. I can persuade myself one minute that a despicable tyranny is being gradually visited upon us by a self-serving nomenclatura and the next that proportionate measures were taken by the authorities to protect British citizens from irresponsible crimes perpetrated by self-appointed publicity seekers.

Such indecisiveness does not seem to afflict most of my fellow columnists elsewhere in the media. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to stick up for indecision. On behalf of those of us struggling to decide where justice lies, let me follow Boswell and “throw our conversation into [this] journal in the form of a dialogue”:

The five myths about fracking

Wind power does more environmental harm

My Times column on the environmental effects of fracking and wind power:

It was the American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once said: “You are entitled to your opinions, but not to your own facts.” In the debate over shale gas – I refuse to call it the fracking debate since fracking has been happening in this country for decades – the opponents do seem to be astonishingly cavalier with the facts.

Here are five things that they keep saying which are just not true. First, that shale gas production has polluted aquifers in the United States. Second, that it releases more methane than other forms of gas production. Third, that it uses a worryingly large amount of water. Fourth, that it uses hundreds of toxic chemicals. Fifth, that it causes damaging earthquakes.

GM crops don't kill kids; opposing them does

The deliberate frustration of golden rice is a humanitarian crime

Belated posting of my recent Times column on golden rice with links:

It was over harlequin ducks that we bonded. Ten years ago, at a meeting in Monterey, California, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, I bumped into the German biologist Ingo Potrykus watching harlequin ducks in the harbour before breakfast. Shared enthusiasm for bird watching broke the ice.

I knew of him, of course. He had been on the cover of Time magazine for potentially solving one of the world’s great humanitarian challenges. Four years before, with his colleague Peter Beyer, he had added three genes to the 30,000 in rice to help to prevent vitamin A deficiency, one of the most preventable causes of morbidity and mortality in poor countries with rice-dominated diets. They had done it for nothing, persuading companies to waive their patents, so that they could give the rice seeds away free. It was a purely humanitarian impulse.

Hadrian's wall was a marvellous mistake; so is HS2

On the opportunity costs of huge infrastructure projects

My latest column in The Times:

This is an article about a railway, but it begins with a wall; bear with me. I live not far from the line of Hadrian’s Wall and I often take visitors to marvel at its almost 1,900-year-old stones. That the Romans could build 80 miles of dressed stone fortification, 15ft high and 9ft wide, over crags and bogs with a small fort every mile, is indeed a marvel. It was one of Rome’s most expensive projects.

Yet I often ask visitors as they marvel: did it work? The answer is no. The Roman garrison was too strung out to defend the whole thing at once. Within 30 years it had been successfully attacked by the barbarians; within 40 it had been abandoned for a new wall in Scotland; when that did not work and Hadrian’s Wall became the boundary again, it was overrun by barbarians several times. Did it exclude or pacify the tribes of northern Britain? I doubt it.

Alan Turing, a great scientist

More than just a war hero and victim of persecution

My Times column:

Tomorrow the House of Lords gives a second reading to Lord Sharkey’s Bill to pardon Alan Turing, the mathematician, computer pioneer and code-cracking hero of the Second World War.

In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for being gay (he had reported a burglary to the police and made it no secret that the burglar was a friend of his consensual lover). Convicted of “gross indecency” he was offered prison or oestrogen injections to reduce his libido; he chose the latter but then committed suicide at the age of 41.

Nobody ever calls the weather average

The extreme weather scam exposed in a new book

Part of the problem was that some time towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century it became clear that the Earth's average temperature just was not consistently rising any more, however many "adjustments" were made to the thermometer records, let alone rising anything like as rapidly as all the models demanded.

So those who made their living from alarm, and by then there were lots, switched tactics and began to jump on any unusual weather event, whether it was a storm, a drought, a blizzard or a flood, and blame it on man-made carbon dioxide emissions. This proved a rewarding tactic, because people - egged on by journalists - have an inexhaustible appetite for believing in the vindictiveness of the weather gods. The fossil fuel industry was inserted in the place of Zeus as the scapegoat of choice. (Scientists are the priests.)

The fact that people have short memories about weather events is what enables this game to be played. The long Australian drought of 2001-7, the Brisbane floods of 2009-10 and the angry summer of 2012-13 stand out in people's minds. People are reluctant to put them down to chance. Even here in mild England, people are always saying "I have never known it so cold/hot/mild/windy/wet/dry/changeable as it is this year". One Christmas I noticed the seasons had been pretty average all year, neither too dry nor too wet nor too cold nor too warm. "I have never known it so average," I said to somebody. I got a baffled look. Nobody ever calls the weather normal.

Lower costs mean higher spending in healthcare

The Jevons paradox in medical technology

My column in The Times on healthcare costs:

Babies got cheaper this week. Twice. First, Belgian scientists announced that their new method has the potential to cut the costs of some in-vitro fertilisation treatments from £5,000 to below £200. Their cut-price recipe requires little more than baking soda and lemon juice in place of purified carbon dioxide gas to maintain acidity when growing an embryo in a lab before implanting it.

Second, a baby called Connor was born after 13 of his parents’ embryos had their genomes analysed using next-generation DNA-sequencing techniques in an Oxford laboratory. Only three of the embryos were found to have the right chromosome number, and one of these “normal” embryos was then implanted in his mother. This new approach, made possible by the rapidly falling cost of DNA sequencing, promises to cut the number of failures during IVF, reducing both cost and heartache.

I may follow the crowd, but not because it's a crowd

Evidence, not consensus, is what counts

My latest (and last) Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Last week a friend chided me for not agreeing with the scientific consensus that climate change is likely to be dangerous. I responded that, according to polls, the "consensus" about climate change only extends to the propositions that it has been happening and is partly man-made, both of which I readily agree with. Forecasts show huge uncertainty.

Besides, science does not respect consensus. There was once widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of which proved false. Science, Richard Feyman once said, is "the belief in the ignorance of experts.

The myth that choice overload is a cause of great misery

Fashionable attacks on choice are not supported by good evidence

I have an article in Spiked! on the the tyranny of consumer choice:

This summer at TED Global in Edinburgh, a lively networking conference, there was a talk on one of the true and terrible scourges of the modern world. This is a bit of a theme for TED. The same scourge was bravely but mercilessly exposed at TED Global three years ago in Oxford and nine years ago at the ur-TED itself in California. All three talks went down well with the hip folk who attend TED meetings. They nodded in agreement that this scourge must end, and soon.

The scourge in question? The thing that deserved as prominent a castigation as disease and poverty and tyranny? Too much choice. Yes, the pressing and urgent issue we face is that when we enter a supermarket, we find tens of brands of cereal and it is making us – wait for it – anxious. Oh woe.

The dash for shale oil will shake the world

Oil prices look set to fall as America exploits a shale cornucopia

My Times column:

Exciting as Britain’s latest shale gas estimate is — 47 years’ supply or more — it pales beside what is happening in the United States. There shale gas is old hat; the shale oil revolution is proving a world changer, promising not just lower oil prices worldwide, but geopolitical ripples as America weans itself off oil imports and perhaps loses interest in the Middle East.

One of the pioneers of the shale gas revolution, Chris Wright, of Liberty Resources, was in Britain last month. It was he and his colleagues at Pinnacle Technologies who reinvented hydraulic fracturing in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast petroleum resources in shale. Within seven years the Barnett shale, in and around Forth Worth, Texas, was producing half as much gas as the whole of Britain consumes. And the Barnett proved to be a baby compared with other shales.

Curing cancer is harder than preventing it

Genomics helps head off cancer, but cures remain elusive

My column in The Times:

Preventing cancer is proving a lot easier than curing it. The announcement that the NHS will fund five-year courses of the drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene for healthy women who are genetically predisposed to get breast and ovarian cancer is overdue. The US has been doing “chemo-prevention” for some time and clinical trials have confirmed that the benefits comfortably outweigh the side-effects. Tens of thousands of deaths a year could be averted.

This is another incremental advance in the prevention of cancer that began with the gradual recognition (resisted, ironically, by some of those fighting pesticides in the late 1950s) that tobacco smoke was a chief cause of lung cancer. Mainly thanks to such prevention, along with early diagnosis, surgery and some treatments, deaths from cancer, adjusted for age, are falling.

The Tabarrok curve

Striking a balance between intellectual property and freedom to innovate

The economist Arthur Laffer is reputed to have drawn his famous curve—showing that beyond a certain point higher taxes generate lower revenue—on a paper napkin at a dinner with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in the Washington Hotel in 1974.

Another economist, Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University, last year drew a similar curve on a virtual napkin to argue that, beyond a certain point, greater protection for intellectual property causes less innovation. He thinks that U.S. patent law is well beyond that optimal point.

Last week the Supreme Court came out against the patenting of genes, on the grounds that they are discoveries, not inventions, though it did allow that edited copies of the DNA of a breast cancer gene should be seen as invented diagnostic tools. Dr. Tabarrok thinks that decision and other recent rulings are nudging patent law back in the right direction after a protectionist drift in the 1980s and '90s.

The biomess

Making electricity from burning wood is bad for the economy and the environment

My column in the Times on 20 June 2013:

In the Energy Bill going through Parliament there is allowance for generous subsidy for a huge push towards burning wood to produce electricity. It’s already happening. Drax power station in Yorkshire has converted one of its boilers to burn wood pellets instead of coal; soon three of its six boilers will be doing this and the power station will then be receiving north of half a billion pounds a year in subsidy. By 2020, the Government estimates, up to 11 per cent of our generating capacity will be from burning wood.

Badgers versus hedgehogs

In the absence of predators to control lesser predators, people have a role

My article in the Times on 13 June 2013

‘We are as gods and have to get good at it,” the Californian ecologist and writer Stewart Brand said recently. Worldwide there has been a sea change in the ecological profession. These days most ecologists recognise that there is no such thing as a pristine wilderness and that the best biodiversity is produced by active management to control some species and encourage others.

Who will lobby for the poor old taxpayer?

It's what politicians will do unbribed that's the bigger scandal

My Times column here.

I have a confession to make. Last week I held a meeting with representatives of three organisations and offered to raise an issue for them in the House of Lords. They claimed they were charities seeking a smidgin of funding to push forward promising research on a squirrel-pox vaccine, which might help to save the red squirrel from extinction in this country.

Now I begin to wonder if these three charming people were actually disguised investigative reporters who were trying to add my name to that of my three fellow peers who were splashed over the front page of The Sunday Times. Or perhaps they were from a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. (Tony Blair apparently spoke at an event hosted by a front for the latter.) I never checked their credentials or frisked them for hidden cameras.

Non-fossil fuels

Abiogenic methane made in the mantle from carbonate?

My Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on abiogenic methane

Coal, oil and gas are "fossil" fuels, right? They are derived from ancient life-forms and are nonrenewable, stored energy, extracted from prehistoric sunlight. In the case of coal and most oil, this is obviously true: You can find fossil tree trunks and leaves in coal seams and chemicals in oil that come from plankton.

But there's increasing doubt about whether all natural gas (which is 90% methane) comes from fermented fossil microbes. Some of it may be made by chemical processes deep within the earth. If so, the implications could be profound for the climate and energy debates.

TRIM21 turns immunity upside down

Unexpectedly, antibodies work inside cells to defeat pathogens

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on a surprising discovery about antibodies and the immune system:

It isn't often that an entire field of medical science gets turned on its head. But it is becoming clear that immunology is undergoing a big rethink thanks to the discovery that antibodies, which combat viruses, work not just outside cells but inside them as well. The star of this new view is a protein molecule called TRIM21.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that the body fights off infection in two separate ways. First is the adaptive immune system, which works outside the cell. It generates antibodies to intercept specific invaders, locking onto them like a tracking missile and preventing them from entering the cell. A second line of defense, the innate immune system, operates within the cell; it is like an expansive air-defense network, blasting away at all invaders.

Culture, genes and the human revolution

By Simon Fisher and Matt Ridley

The implications of lower climate sensitivity

Global warming will probably be a net benefit for several decades

Update: I have added a reply to a critic of the article below.

I have an article in the Times on the implications of a new estimate of climate sensitivity:

There is little doubt that the damage being done by climate-change policies currently exceeds the damage being done by climate change, and will for several decades yet. Hunger, rainforest destruction, excess cold-weather deaths and reduced economic growth are all exacerbated by the rush to biomass and wind. These dwarf any possible effects of worse weather, for which there is still no actual evidence anyway: recent droughts, floods and storms are within historic variability.

Too virulent to spread

Why influenza keeps failing to live up to pessimistic forecasts

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on infleunza:

Here we go again. A new bird-flu virus in China, the H7N9 strain, is spreading alarm. It has infected about 130 people and killed more than 30. Every time this happens, some journalists compete to foment fear, ably assisted by cautious but worried scientists, and then tell the world to keep calm. We need a new way to talk about the risk of a flu pandemic, because the overwhelming probability is that this virus will kill people, yes, but not in vast numbers.

Did life arrive on earth as microbes?

A speculative idea that we could be the history of life's second chapter

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on life in space:

A provocative calculation by two biologists suggests that life might have arrived on Earth fully formed—at least in microbe form.

Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore and Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Fla., plotted the genome size of different kinds of organisms against their presumed date of origin. Armed with just five data points they concluded that genome complexity doubles every 376 million years in a sort of geological version of Moore's Law of progress in computers.

The bitcoin bubble and Birmingham tokens

Private innovation in currencies is a good thing

I have a column in the Times on bitcoins and their implications for private money

Bitcoins — a form of digital private money — shot up in value from $90 to $260 each after Cypriot bank accounts were raided by the State, then plunged last week before recovering some of their value. These gyrations are symptoms of a bubble. Just as with tulip bulbs or dotcom shares, there will probably be a bursting. All markets in assets that can be hoarded and resold — as opposed to those in goods for consumption — suffer from bubbles. Money is no different; and a new currency is rather like a new tulip breed.

Yet it would be a mistake to write off Bitcoins as just another bubble. People are clearly keen on new forms of money safe from the confiscation and inflation that looks increasingly inevitable as governments try to escape their debts. Bitcoins pose a fundamental question: will some form of private money replace the kind minted and printed by governments?

Junk DNA and HeLa cells

Two fierce arguments about DNA

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on junk DNA and on the messed up genome of the HeLa cell.

The usually placid world of molecular biology has been riven with two fierce disputes recently. Although apparently separate, the two conflagrations are converging.

The first row concerns the phrase "junk DNA." Coined in 1972 by the geneticist Susumu Ohno, it is an attempt to explain why vast stretches of animal genomes, far more in some species than in others, seem to serve no purpose. Genes of all kinds and their control sequences make up maybe 9% of the human genome at the very most. The rest may be nonfunctional "junk," mainly there because it is good at getting itself duplicated. Yet the phrase has always caused a surprising amount of offense. Reports of the discrediting of junk-DNA theory have been frequent.

Spectator Diary April 2013

The cold spring weather and what it means

I wrote The Spectator diary column this week:

We’ve discovered that we own an island. But dreams of independence and tax-havenry evaporate when we try to picnic there on Easter Sunday: we watch it submerge slowly beneath the incoming tide. It’s a barnacle-encrusted rock, about the size of a tennis court, just off the beach at Cambois, north of Blyth, which for some reason ended up belonging to my ancestor rather than the Crown. Now there’s a plan for a subsidy-fired biomass power station nearby that will burn wood (and money) while pretending to save the planet. The outlet pipes will go under our rock and we are due modest compensation. As usual, it’s us landowners who benefit from renewable energy while working people bear the cost: up the coast are the chimneys of the country’s largest aluminium smelter — killed, along with hundreds of jobs, by the government’s unilateral carbon-floor price in force from this week.

There were dead puffins on the beach, as there have been all along the east coast. This cold spring has hit them hard. Some puffin colonies have been doing badly in recent years, after booming in the 1990s, but contrary to the predictions of global warming, it’s not the more southerly colonies that have suffered most. The same is true of guillemots, kittiwakes and sandwich terns: northern colonies are declining.

Nice or nasty by nature?

Under some conditions co-operation evolves

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A new study by Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and colleagues has modeled the emergence of “nice” behavior in idealized human beings. It’s done by computer, using the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which a prisoner has to decide between cooperating with a comrade to get a mutual reward or avoiding a punishment by being the first of the two to defect to the other side. The Zurich team found that so long as players in the game stay near their (modeled) parents, the birth of a nice guy predisposed to cooperate can trigger “a cascade” of generous acts.

It's weather, not climate

Variability matters more than trend

This is a version of an article I published in The Times on 27 March:

The east wind could cut tungsten; the daffodils are weeks behind; the first chiffchaffs are late. It’s a cold spring and the two things everybody seems to agree upon are that there’s something weird about the weather, and it’s our fault. Both are almost certainly wrong.

Cheap energy and the North-east of England

Steam engines and the future of coal

I have published the following article in the Newcastle Journal (paywalled) today:

Obsidian chronicles ancient trade

The collapse of the Akkadian empire laid bare by isotopes

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Obsidian was once one of humankind's most sought-after materials, the "rich man's flint" of the stone-age world. This black volcanic glass fragments into lethally sharp, tough blades that, even after the invention of bronze, made it literally a cutting-edge technology.

Because sources of obsidian are few and far between, obsidian artifacts are considered some of the earliest evidence of commerce: Long-distance movement of obsidian, even hundreds of thousands of years ago, suggests the early stirring of true trade.

The gas age is good news

Methane hydrate joins shale gas and deep sea gas

I have the following article in the Times on 15 March:

Move over shale gas, here comes methane hydrate. (Perhaps.) On Tuesday the Japanese government’s drilling ship Chikyu started flaring off gas from a hole drilled into a solid deposit of methane and ice, 300 metres beneath the seabed under 1000 metres of water, 30 miles off the Japanese coast.

Jurassic pigeon- the drive to revive extinct species

De-extinction is much closer than it was

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the prospect of de-extinction, especially the passenger pigeon.

Extinct species are gone forever. Or are they? For some time now the dream of re-creating something like a mammoth from its DNA has been floating about on the fringes of the scientific world (and in movies like "Jurassic Park") without being taken seriously.

After the asteroid impact

How North America got its plants and animals back

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happened to the cology of North America after the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago:

Last week, just as a meteorite exploded over Russia, I used this space for an email to Charles Darwin, wherever he is. I told him about the now overwhelming evidence for an asteroid impact having caused the extinction of dinosaurs. I thought he would be interested because it is a striking exception to his "uniformitarian" assumption that, in the past, evolution was shaped by the same forces still operating on Earth today.

Evolution, extinction and asteroids

The Chicxulub impact and the dinosaur extinction coincided

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, published the day after a big asteroid missed the earth by 17,000 miles and a smaller one blew out windows in Russia, is about the huge one that extinguished the dinosaurs just over 66 million years ago:

The future has a richer past than the past did. By this I mean that one of the great benefits of modern science is that it enriches our knowledge of the past. Imagine how thrilled Charles Darwin would have been to learn this week that it's now all but certain that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by an asteroid (much bigger than the one that missed us this week) slamming into Mexico about 66,038,000 years ago. In fact, I might send him an email to explain.

When species extinction is a good thing

Will Jimmy Carter exterminate Guinea worm soon?

It's not a race, exactly, but there's an intriguing uncertainty about whether a former U.S. president or a software magnate will cause the next deliberate extinction of a species in the wild. Will Jimmy Carter eradicate Guinea worm before Bill Gates eradicates polio?

It is more than a third of a century since a human disease was extinguished. The last case of smallpox was in 1977, and in those days health experts expected other diseases to follow smallpox quickly into oblivion. Polio has repeatedly disappointed campaigners by hanging on, though it now affects less than 1% as many people as at its peak in the 1950s.

The generosity of Bill Gates has done much to speed the decline of polio, and he and most experts now see its end within six years at most. India, 10 years ago the worst-affected country, has been polio-free since 2011, and only three countries still host the virus: Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Nigeria. Though the murder of nine polio vaccinators in Pakistan by Islamists in December was a tragic setback, last year there were just 222 new polio cases world-wide.

Insects that put Google maps to shame

Dung beetles, monarch butterflies and the role of cryptochrome

My latest Mind and Matter column is on the esoteric topic of insect navigation:

A friend who once studied courtship in dung beetles alerted me last week to a discovery. On moonless nights, African scarab beetles, which roll balls of dung, can use the Milky Way to navigate in fairly straight lines away from dung piles, thus avoiding other dung beetles keen to steal their dung balls. "Now this is real science, simple, fascinating and completely wonderful," enthused my friend.

Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden and her colleagues put dung beetles inside a planetarium at Wits University in South Africa with a pile of dung, and with or without little caps over their eyes. The results of the beetles' peregrinations clearly showed that being able to see the stars keeps the beetles relatively straight, even if just the Milky Way is projected overhead without other stars. This is the first demonstration of star navigation by insects and of Milky Way navigation by any animal.

Farewell to the myth of the noble savage

Napoleon Chagnon was right about war in small-scale societies

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A war within anthropology over the causes of war itself seems to be reaching resolution. The great ethnographer of the gardener-hunter Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, Napoleon Chagnon, has long been battling colleagues over whether men in prestate societies go to war over protein or women. Next month he'll publish a memoir, "Noble Savages," detailing (as the subtitle puts it) "My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes-the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists." This is a good time to look back at how his argument has fared.

Genes and social networks in monkeys and people

The heritability of having many friends

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Not only is the capacity for forming large social networks in monkeys partly genetic, but some of the genes that affect this ability may now be known. So suggests a new study of an isolated population of free-living macaques on an island off Puerto Rico.

Precision editing of DNA

Changing one letter in the genetic code at a precise location now possible

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rockefeller and Harvard universities have found a new method of editing DNA with great precision. This and another new technique mean that scientists can now go into a cell, find a particular sequence in the genome and change that sequence by a single letter.

Just to get your mind around this feat, imagine taking about 5,000 different novels and reprinting them in normal font size on 23 very long cotton ribbons. Since each word takes up about half an inch, the ribbons, placed end to end, would stretch for roughly three million miles-120 times around the world. But to be a bit more realistic, twist and tangle the ribbons so much that they only go around the planet once.

One of the books written on your ribbons is "A Tale of Two Cities," but you don't even know which ribbon it is on, let alone where on that ribbon. Your task is to find the clauses "It was the beast of times, it was the worst of times" and correct the misprint.

Mark Lynas and green orthodoxy

A conversion over GM food

Well done, Mark Lynas, for changing his mind over genetically modified food.

Here's Mark Lynas on those who still oppose GM food: "I look forward to their opening up an honest and self-critical debate on this, rather than attacking others like myself who challenge green orthodoxy where it likely harms society and the environment."

Here's Mark Lynas on wind power: "Matt Ridley's massive Spectator anti-wind rant seems completely fact-free. Any references to back this up, @mattwridley?" [There were scores of facts and references, starting with my assertion that wind power provides 0.3% of the UK's total energy, a fact that Lynas challenged, then called specious, then conceded].

The greening of the planet

Satellites confirm that green vegetation is increasing

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the greening of the planet:

Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally? Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, overdevelopment and ecosystem destruction.

Global outlook rosy; Europe's outlook grim

We are copying the Ming empire

I have an op-ed in the Times on how even a global optimist can foresee absolute as well as relative decline for Europe if it continues to emulate the Ming Empire:

A "rational optimist" like me thinks the world will go on getting better for most people at a record rate, not because I have a temperamental or ideological bent to good cheer but because of the data. Poverty, hunger, population growth rates, inequality, and mortality from violence, disease and weather - all continue to plummet on a global scale.

But a global optimist can still be a regional pessimist. When asked what I am pessimistic about, I usually reply: bureaucracy and superstition. Using those two tools, we Europeans seem intent on making our future as bad as we can. Like mandarins at the court of the Ming emperors or viziers at the court of Abbasid caliphs, our masters seem determined to turn relative into absolute decline. It is entirely possible that ten years from now the world as a whole will be 50 per cent richer, but Europeans will be 50 per cent poorer.

The origin of life

Electrochemical echoes of life's membranes at alkaline vents

What better subject for the origin of a new year than the origin of life itself? A new paper claims to have nailed down at last the conditions, location and path by which life started, slicing through two Gordian knots.

Knot No. 1 is the chick-and-egg problem of energy. Living things burn energy at a furious rate to stay alive. Every time a bacterium divides, it uses up 50 times its own mass of energy-currency molecules (called ATP)-and that's with efficient and specialized modern protein machinery to do the job. When starting out, life would have been a far more wasteful process, needing more energy, yet would have had none of its modern machinery to harness or store energy.

Knot No. 2 is entropy. Life uses energy to make order out of chaos. So the putative location preferred by previous evolutionists-Alexander Oparin's primordial soup in Charles Darwin's "warm little pond" with a little lightning-is just too unconstrained: Life would just keep dissolving away before it got started.

Peak farmland is here

Less land will be needed to feed the world

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on peak farmland, a more plausible prediction than peak oil.

It's a brave scientist who dares to announce the turning point of a trend, the top of a graph. A paper published this week does just that, persuasively arguing that a centurieslong trend is about to reverse: the use of land for farming. The authors write: "We are confident that we stand on the peak of cropland use, gazing at a wide expanse of land that will be spared for Nature."

Low climate sensitivity

New data on aerosols and ocean heat suggest slow, mild warming

I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the subject of climate sensitivity.

Here are:

1. The article

Raymond Gosling, the forgotten man of the double helix

He took the two key X-ray photographs

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Last week saw a 50th-anniversary celebration in Stockholm of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA's structure. That structure instantly revealed a key secret of life: that an infinitely recombinable sequence of four chemical bases, pairing with each other in two ways, explains life's ability to grow and copy itself. Appropriately, two pairs of people made the discovery: James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge, England; and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London.

But there was a fifth person, who's often forgotten in the telling of the tale: Raymond Gosling. He at last tells part of his own tale in some of the sidebar annotations of a remarkable new book, "The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix," edited by Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski. The book's text is Dr. Watson's original and brilliant novelistic account of how the discovery was made, but Drs. Gann and Witkowski have added photos, extracts of letters and footnotes to fill out the picture, in the process vindicating almost all of Watson's characterizations.

Seismic risks depend on location, not technology

A hydro dam created the largest man-made earthquake

The Times published the following article by me last week. I have inserted updates to clarify one issue.

On 1 June this year a Mr Andrew Noakes was having lunch in Shropshire when "I thought I heard something. The sound only went on for a few seconds and then it stopped. There was no shaking cutlery or furniture." It was a natural earthquake, bigger than the ones caused by fracking in Lancashire last year. Worldwide there are a million a year of a similar size. Very few are even noticed. A magnitude 2.3 tremor is to a dangerous earthquake as a tiny stream is to the Amazon: the same sort of thing but much less likely to drown you.

By contrast, an earthquake that was 180 million times more energetic killed 80,000 people in 2008 in Sichuan. We now know it was almost certainly man-made, or at least man-triggered. The Zipingpu reservoir, designed to generate hydro-electric power, had been filled with water shortly before the fault beneath it failed.

Induced pluripotent stem cells change the ethical debate

Stem cells from blood could be used to test drugs

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on stem cells:

The chief medical ambition of those who study stem cells has always been that the cells would be used to repair and regenerate damaged tissue. That's still a long way off, despite rapid progress exemplified by the presentation of the Nobel Prize next week to Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for a key stem-cell breakthrough. But there's another, less well known application of stem cells that is already delivering results: disease modeling.

Dr. Yamanaka used a retrovirus to insert four genes into a mouse cell to return it to a "pluripotent" state-capable of turning into almost any kind of cell. Last month a team at Johns Hopkins University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, using a version of Dr. Yamanaka's technique, successfully grew nerve cells from a patient suffering from a rare disease called Riley-Day syndrome, which is linked to early mortality, seizures and other symptoms and caused by a fault in one gene.

Shale gas could cut energy bills

Countries that turn their backs on cheap energy lose out

And if cutting carbon emissions is what floats your boat, you will like shale gas even more. The advent of cheap gas, by displacing coal from electricity generation, has drastically cut America's carbon dioxide emissions back to levels last seen in the early 1990s; per capita emissions are now lower than in the 1960s. (See charts here and here.) Britain's subsidised dash for renewable energy has had no such result: wind power is still making a trivial contribution to total energy use (0.4 per cent) while most renewable energy comes from wood, the highest-carbon fuel of all.

The mystery of why we yawn

It's contagious and seems to serve no physiological purpose

Synthetic brains by 2030

Ray Kurzweil's new book

My latest Mind and Matter column is on Ray Kurzweil's new book:

When an IBM computer program called Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, wise folk opined that since chess was just a game of logic, this was neither significant nor surprising. Mastering the subtleties of human language, including similes, puns and humor, would remain far beyond the reach of a computer.

Last year another IBM program, Watson, triumphed at just these challenges by winning "Jeopardy!" (Sample achievement: Watson worked out that a long, tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping was a "meringue harangue.") So is it time to take seriously the prospect of artificial intelligence emulating human abilities?


Taleb on emergence and trial and error

My review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book in the Wall Street Journal:

You don't need a physics degree to ride a bicycle. Nor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb realized one day, do traders need to understand the mathematical theorems of options trading to trade options. Instead traders discover "heuristics," or rules of thumb, by trial and error. These are then formalized by academics into theorems and taught to new generations of traders, who become slaves to theory, ignore their own common sense and end by blowing up the system. In a neat echo of its own thesis, Mr. Taleb's paper making this point sat unpublished for seven years while academic reviewers tried to alter it to fit their prejudices.

Britain's mad biomass dash

Burning wood is the worst thing you can do for carbon dioxide emissions

I have an opinion article in The Times today:

Never has an undercover video sting delighted its victims more. A Greenpeace investigation has caught some Tory MPs scheming to save the countryside from wind farms and cut ordinary people's energy bills while Lib Dems, Guardian writers and Greenpeace activists defend subsidies for fat-cat capitalists and rich landowners with their snouts in the wind-farm trough. Said Tories will be inundated with fan mail.

Yet, for all the furore wind power generates, the bald truth is that it is an irrelevance. Its contribution to cutting carbon dioxide emissions is at best a statistical asterisk. As Professor Gordon Hughes, of the University of Edinburgh, has shown, if wind ever does make a significant contribution to energy capacity its intermittent nature would require a wasteful "spinning" back-up of gas-fired power stations, so it would still make no difference to emissions or might make them worse.

Does sexual selection explain dislike of inequality?

It is not the peacock with big-enough tail that gets to mate, but the one with the biggest tail

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the connection between our interest in relative inequality and the theory of sexual selection:

Evolution by sexual selection is an idea that goes back to Charles Darwin. He had little doubt that it explained much about human beings, and modern biologists generally agree. One of them has even put a figure on it, concluding that some 54.8% of selection in human beings is effectively caused by reproduction of the sexiest rather than survival of the fittest.

Some years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book "The Mating Mind" explored the notion that since human males woo their mates with art, poetry, music and humor, as well as with brawn, much of the expansion of our brain may have been sexually selected.

The Medieval Warm Period

More and more evidence that it was warm and global

Single Vision

All animal vision derives from one common ancestor

My latest Mind and Matter column is on the origin of vision in animals and a vindication for Darwin:

Until recently it was possible, even plausible, to think that the faculty of vision had originated several times during the course of animal evolution. New research suggests not: vision arose only once and earlier than expected, before 700 million years ago.

Davide Pisani and colleagues from the National University of Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of "opsin" protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to detect light. By comparing the genome sequences of sponges, jellyfish and other animals, they tracked the origin of opsins back to the common ancestor of all animals except sponges, but including a flat, shapeless thing called a placozoan. Some time after 755 million years ago, the common ancestor of ourselves and the placozoa duplicated a gene and changed one of the copies into a recognizable opsin.

Diseases and pests are the real ecological threat

The bureaucracy's carbon obsession is distracting

I have an article in this week's Spectator about ash trees and exotic pests:

I'm pessimistic about the ash trees. It seems unlikely that a fungus that killed 90 per cent of Denmark's trees and spreads by air will not be devastating here, too. There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that ash, unlike elms, reproduce sexually so they are not clones - uniformly vulnerable to the pathogen. But it's only a glimmer: tree parasites, from chestnut blight to pine beauty moth, have a habit of sweeping through species pretty rampantly, because trees are so long-lived they cannot evolve resistance in time.

The Forestry Commission's apologists are pleading 'cuts' as an excuse for its failure to do anything more timely to get ahead of the threat, but as a woodland owner I am not convinced. An organisation that has the time and the budget to pore over my every felling or planting application in triplicate and come back with fussy and bossy comments could surely spare a smidgen of interest in looming threats from continental fungi that have been spreading out from Poland for 20 years. The commission was warned four years ago of the problem.

Wolves versus lesser predators

The return of top predators is good for prey eaten by "mesopredators"

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is on wolves and "mesopredators":

The return of the wolf is one of the unexpected ecological bonuses of the modern era. So numerous are wolves that this fall Wisconsin and Wyoming have joined Idaho and Montana in opening wolf-hunting seasons for the first time in years. Minnesota follows suit next month; Michigan may do so next year. The reintroduced wolves of Yellowstone National Park have expanded to meet the expanding packs of Canada and northern Montana.

The same is happening in Europe. Wolf populations are rising in Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe, while in recent years wolves have recolonized France, Germany, Sweden and Norway, and have even been seen in Belgium and the Netherlands. Nor are wolves the only "apex predators" to boom in this way. In the U.S., bears and mountain lions are spreading, to joggers' dismay. Coyotes are reappearing even within cities like Chicago and Denver.

Why Can't Things Get Better Faster (or Slower)?

The surprising regularity of technological progress

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

In 1965, the computer expert Gordon Moore published his famous little graph showing that the number of "components per integrated function" on a silicon chip-a measure of computing power-seemed to be doubling every year and a half. He had only five data points, but Moore's Law has settled into an almost iron rule of innovation. Why is it so regular?

Epigenetic inheritance is a wild goose chase

Epigenetics matters, but not between generations

This week's award of the Nobel Prize for medicine to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka effectively recognizes the science of epigenetics. Dr. Gurdon showed that almost any cell (in a frog) contains all the genetic information to become an adult. What makes the cell develop a certain way is a pattern of "epigenetic" modifications to the DNA specific to each tissue-turning genes on and off. Dr. Yamanaka showed that if you can remove that epigenetic modification (in a mouse) you can reprogram a cell to be an embryo.

Yet to most people the word "epigenetics" has come to mean something quite different: the inheritance of nongenetic features acquired by a parent. Most scientists now think the latter effect is rare, unimportant and hugely overhyped.

There are several mechanisms of modifying DNA without altering the genetic code itself. The key point is that these modifications survive the division of cells.

The benefits of GM crops

After 15 years, the ecological and economic dividends are big

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on genetically modified crops:

Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers. Today, arguably, adopting certain new technologies is harder not just because of a policy of precaution but because of a bias in much of the media against reporting the benefits.

Shale gas is one example, genetically modified food another, where the good news is deemed less newsworthy than the bad. A recent French study claimed that both pesticides and GM corn fed to cancer-susceptible strains of rats produced an increase in tumors. The study has come in for withering criticism from mainstream scientists for its opaque data, small samples, unsatisfactory experimental design and unconventional statistical analysis, yet it has still gained headlines world-wide. (In published responses, the authors have stood by their results.)

Thinkers, not feelers

The psychology of libertarian views

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal finds that just as liberals and conservatives have predictable personalities, so do libertarians:

An individual's personality shapes his or her political ideology at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt. The baffling (to liberals) fact that a large minority of working-class white people vote for conservative candidates is explained by psychological dispositions that override their narrow economic interests.

The retreat of Arctic sea ice

It's happened before

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the retreat of Arctic Sea Ice and what it means:

This week probably saw the Arctic Ocean's sea ice reach its minimum extent for the year and begin to expand again, as it usually does in mid-September. Given that the retreat of Arctic ice has become a key piece of evidence for those who take a more alarmed view of global warming, it's newsworthy that 2012's melt was the greatest since records began in 1979, with sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere shrinking to about 1.3 million square miles, or about half the 1979-2008 average.

As this column has sometimes pointed out ways in which the effects of global warming are happening more slowly than predicted, it is fair to record that this rate of decline in Arctic sea ice is faster than many predicted. Although an entirely ice-free Arctic Ocean during at least one week a year is still several decades away at this rate, we are halfway there after just three decades.

Tobacco denial and pesticide alarm

Rachel Carson and Al Gore relied on a tobacco denier

I have an article in the Spectator drawing attention to the curious fact that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring owed much to a passionate tobacco denier. It's behind a paywall, but there it is with the sources as links. Hat tip Ron Bailey.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published 50 years ago this month, effectively marked the birth of the modern environmental movement. "Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history," wrote Al Gore in his introduction to the 1994 edition.

Don't Look for Inventions Before Their Time

Innovation as an evolutionary process

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Bill Moggridge, who invented the laptop computer in 1982, died last week. His idea of using a hinge to attach a screen to a keyboard certainly caught on big, even if the first model was heavy, pricey and equipped with just 340 kilobytes of memory. But if Mr. Moggridge had never lived, there is little doubt that somebody else would have come up with the idea.

The phenomenon of multiple discovery is well known in science. Innovations famously occur to different people in different places at the same time. Whether it is calculus (Newton and Leibniz), or the planet Neptune (Adams and Le Verrier), or the theory of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace), or the light bulb (Edison, Swan and others), the history of science is littered with disputes over bragging rights caused by acts of simultaneous discovery.

An epidemic of absence

Modern disease is often caused by a lack of parasites

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is a review of a remarkable new science book:

Your great-grandparents faced infectious diseases that hardly threaten you today: tuberculosis, polio, cholera, malaria, yellow fever, measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, tapeworm, hookworm…. But there's also a long list of modern illnesses that your great-grandparents barely knew: asthma, eczema, hay fever, food allergies, Crohn's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis. The coincidence of the rise in these "inflammation" diseases, characterized by an overactive immune system, with the decline of infection is almost certainly not a coincidence.

Copernican demotion

Science keeps reminding us that we are not special

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal:

The astronomer Martin Rees recently coined the neat phrase "Copernican demotion" for science's habit of delivering humiliating disappointment to those who think that our planet is special. Copernicus told us the Earth was not at the center of the solar system; later astronomers found billions of solar systems in each of the billions of galaxies, demoting our home to a cosmic speck.

Mr. Rees says further Copernican demotion may loom ahead. "The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of 'our' big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble." Indeed, even our physics could be a parochial custom: Mr. Rees says that different universes could be governed by different rules and our "laws of nature" may be local bylaws.


A new work of art that is also public open space

The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.

When genes look out for themselves

The antics of selfish DNA in worms and plants

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on selfish DNA:

The theory of selfish DNA was born as a throwaway remark in the book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, when he pondered why there is so much surplus DNA in the genomes of some animals and plants.

Apocalypse Not

A history of failed predictions of doom

When the sun rises on December 22, as it surely will, do not expect apologies or even a rethink. No matter how often apocalyptic predictions fail to come true, another one soon arrives. And the prophets of apocalypse always draw a following-from the 100,000 Millerites who took to the hills in 1843, awaiting the end of the world, to the thousands who believed in Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who forecast the final rapture in both 1994 and 2011.

Predictions of global famine and the end of oil in the 1970s proved just as wrong as end-of-the-world forecasts from millennialist priests. Yet there is no sign that experts are becoming more cautious about apocalyptic promises. If anything, the rhetoric has ramped up in recent years. Echoing the Mayan calendar folk, theBulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight at the start of 2012, commenting: "The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth's atmosphere."

Over the five decades since the success of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and the four decades since the success of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth in 1972, prophecies of doom on a colossal scale have become routine. Indeed, we seem to crave ever-more-frightening predictions-we are now, in writer Gary Alexander's word, apocaholic. The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.

Did your ancestor date a Neanderthal?

And if so where and when?

My latest Mind and Matter column discusses the debate about how non-Africans got their 1-4% Neanderthal DNA:

So did we or didn't we? Last week saw the publication of two new papers with diametrically opposed conclusions about whether non-African people have Neanderthal-human hybrids among their ancestors-a result of at least some interspecies dalliance in the distant past.

That non-Africans share 1% to 4% of their genomes with Neanderthals is not in doubt, thanks to the pioneering work of paleo-geneticists led by the Max Planck Institute's Svante Paabo. At issue is how to interpret that fact. Dr. Paabo originally recognized that there are two possible explanations, hybridization (which got all the press) or "population substructure."

Human uniqueness versus anthropomorphism

Rats rescuing rats looks like empathy, but what about ants?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Identifying unique features of human beings is a cottage industry in psychology. In his book "Stumbling on Happiness," the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert jokes that every member of his profession lives under the obligation at some time in his career to complete a sentence which begins: "The human being is the only animal that..." Those who have completed the sentence with phrases like "makes tools," "is conscious" or "can imitate" have generally now conceded that some other animals also have these traits.

Plenty of human uniqueness remains. After all, uniqueness is everywhere in the biological world: Elephants and worms also have unique features. As fast as one scientist demotes human beings from being unique in one trait, another scientist comes up with a new unique trait: grandparental care, for instance, or extra spines on the pyramidal cells of our prefrontal cortex.

The perils of confirmation bias - part 3

Climate science needs gadflies

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is the third in the series on confirmation bias.

I argued last week that the way to combat confirmation bias-the tendency to behave like a defense attorney rather than a judge when assessing a theory in science-is to avoid monopoly. So long as there are competing scientific centers, some will prick the bubbles of theory reinforcement in which other scientists live.

The perils of confirmation bias - part 2

What keeps scientists accurate is rivals' scepticism, not their own

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

If, as I argued last week, scientists are just as prone as everybody else to confirmation bias ­ to looking for evidence to support rather than test their ideas ­ then how is it that science, unlike cults and superstitions, does change its mind and find new things?

The answer was spelled out by the psychologist Raymond Nickerson of Tufts University in a paper written in 1998: "It is not so much the critical attitude that individual scientists have taken with respect to their own ideas that has given science the success it has enjoyed... but more the fact that individual scientists have been highly motivated to demonstrate that hypotheses that are held by some other scientist(s) are false."

The perils of confirmation bias - part 1

How scientists collect positive evidence rather than test theories

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

There's a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché: that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it. Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.

Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they collect confirming evidence.

Who's in charge if we find life on Mars?

Apart from the Martians, that is

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

If all goes well next month, Curiosity, NASA's latest mission to Mars, will land in the Gale crater, a 3.5-billion-year-old, 96-mile-wide depression near the planet's equator. Out will roll a car-size rover to search for signs of life, among other things. It will drill into rocks and sample the contents, using a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.

In the unlikely event that the project finds evidence of life, then what? In particular, who is in charge of deciding what we should do if we encounter living Martian creatures?

How Darwin would reform Britain's banks

Top down design is flawed even in finance

The Times published my op-ed on banking reform:

It is not yet clear whether the current rage against the banks will do more harm than good: whether we are about to throw the baby of banking as a vital utility out with the bathwater of banking as a wasteful casino. But what is clear is that the current mood of Bankerdämmerung is an opportunity as well as a danger. The fact that so many people agree that some kind of drastic reform is needed, all the way along a spectrum from Milibands to mega-Tories, might just open the window through which far-reaching reform of the financial system enters.

All the actors involved bear some blame. First, investment bankers and the principals in financial companies that cluster around them have trousered an increasing share of the returns from the financial markets, leaving less for their customers and shareholders, while getting "too big to fail", so passing their risks to taxpayers.

Two rival kinds of plants and their future

Can rice match maize's yield?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Two rival designs of plant biochemistry compete to dominate the globe. One, called C3 after the number of carbon atoms in the initial sugars it makes, is old, but still dominant. Rice is a C3 plant. The other, called C4, is newer in evolutionary history, and now has about 21% of the photosynthesis "market." Corn is a C4 plant. In hot weather, the C3 mechanism becomes inefficient at grabbing carbon dioxide from the air, but in cool weather C4 stops working altogether. So at first glance it seems as if global warming should benefit C4.

England's wettest June -- noise, not signal

The Met Office keeps getting 3-month forecasts wrong on the warm side

I wrote the following op-ed in The Times (behind a paywall) on 2 July.

As I cowered in my parked car in a street in Newcastle last Thursday, nearly deafened by hail on the roof of the car, thunder from the black sky and shrieking girls from the doorway of a school, a dim recollection swam into my mind. After inching back home slowly, through the flooded streets, I googled to refresh the memory. On 23 March this year, the Meteorological Office issued the following prediction:

"The forecast for average UK rainfall slightly favours drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June as a whole, and also slightly favours April being the driest of the 3 months. With this forecast, the water resources situation in southern, eastern and central England is likely to deteriorate further during the April-May-June period."

The zoo inside you

Microbes and worms that are necessary for the immune system to work

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

One of the delights of science is its capacity for showing us that the world is not as it seems. A good example is the startling statistic that there are at least 10 times as many bacterial cells (belonging to up to 1,000 species) in your gut as there are human cells in your entire body: that "you" are actually an entire microbial zoo as well as a person. You are 90% microbes by cell count, though not by volume-a handy reminder of just how small bacteria are.

This fact also provides a glimpse of the symbiotic nature of our relationship with these bugs. A recent study by Howard Ochman at Yale University and colleagues found that each of five great apes has a distinct set of microbes in its gut, wherever it lives. So chimpanzees can be distinguished from human beings by their gut bacteria, which have been co-evolving with their hosts for millions of years.

High IQ heritability would testify to environmental equality

How twin studies silenced their critics

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

These days the heritability of intelligence is not in doubt: Bright adults are more likely to have bright kids. The debate was not always this calm. In the 1970s, suggesting that IQ could be inherited at all was a heresy in academia, punishable by the equivalent of burning at the stake.

More than any other evidence, it was the study of twins that brought about this change. "Born Together-Reared Apart," a new book by Nancy L. Segal about the Minnesota study of Twins Reared Apart (Mistra), narrates the history of the shift. In 1979, Thomas Bouchard of the University of Minnesota came across a newspaper report about a set of Ohio twins, separated at birth, who had been reunited and proved to possess uncannily similar habits. Dr. Bouchard began to collect case histories of twins raised apart and to invite them to Minneapolis for study.

Planetary boundaries are in practice arbitrary

Technology leads people to live more lightly on the land

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Part of the preamble to Agenda 21, the action plan that came out of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, reads: "We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being."

Do Human Beings Carry Expiration Dates?

Few people get past 115, though many live to 100

Update: a couple of small corrections inserted in square brackets below. Thanks to Stephen Coles of UCLA.

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

How Facebook captured capitalist "Kumbaya"

Free sharing on the net is not incompatible with markets

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Human beings love sharing. We swap, collaborate, care, support, donate, volunteer and generally work for each other. We tend to admire sharing when it's done for free but frown upon it-or consider it a necessary evil-when it's done for profit. Some think that online, we're at the dawn of a golden age of free sharing, the wiki world, in which commerce will be replaced by mass communal sharing-what the futurist John Perry Barlow called "dot communism."

Evolution ain't what it used to be

Novel rare genes and shrinking brains

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal.

If you write about genetics and evolution, one of the commonest questions you are likely to be asked at public events is whether human evolution has stopped. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer.

I'm tempted to give a flippant response, borrowed from the biologist Richard Dawkins: Since any human trait that increases the number of babies is likely to gain ground through natural selection, we can say with some confidence that incompetence in the use of contraceptives is probably on the rise (though only if those unintended babies themselves thrive enough to breed in turn).

Red tape hobbles a harvest of life-saving rice

Bio-engineered micronutrients may be the most cost-effective way to help the poor

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

This week saw the announcement of the latest conclusions of the Copenhagen Consensus, a project founded by Bjørn Lomborg in which expert economists write detailed papers every four years and then gather to vote on the answer to a simple question: Imagine you had $75 billion to donate to worthwhile causes. What would you do, and where should we start?

How Dickensian childhoods leave genetic scars

Epigenetics and childhood maltreatment

Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

Being maltreated as a child can perhaps affect you for life. It now seems the harm might reach into your very DNA. Two recently published studies found evidence of changes to the genetic material in people with experience of maltreatment. These are the tip of an iceberg of discoveries in the still largely mysterious field of "epigenetic" epidemiology-the alteration of gene expression in ways that affect later health.

The economic defeat of tuberculosis

TB was not cured so much as prevented by better housing conditions

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Peter Pringle's new book "Experiment Eleven" documents a shocking scandal in the history of medicine, when Albert Schatz, the discoverer of streptomycin, was deprived of the credit and the Nobel Prize by his ambitious boss, Selman Waksman. Streptomycin was and is a miraculous cure for tuberculosis.

Yet the near disappearance of tuberculosis from the Western world, where it was once the greatest killer of all, owes little to streptomycin. Mortality from TB had already fallen by 75% in most Western countries by 1950, when streptomycin became available, and the rate of fall was little different before and after. Scarlet fever, pneumonia and diphtheria all declined rapidly long before their cures were introduced.

High tech runs through it: the new science of fly fishing

Silicon nano matrix fishing rods

My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the technology of fly fishing rods

Moore's Law is the leitmotif of the modern age: Incessant improvements in communication and computing are accompanied by incessant drops in price. Yet some quite low-tech devices are also experiencing Moore's Laws of their own, especially those that use new materials. Even something as mundane as fishing rods.

Games Primates Play

People behave just like the apes they are

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about how predictably "primate" we all are in the workplace:

Generally, junior professors write long and unsolicited emails to senior professors, who reply with short ones after a delay; the juniors then reply quickly and at length. This is not because the seniors are busier, for they, too, write longer and more punctually when addressing their deans and funders, who reply more briefly and tardily. The asymmetry in length and speed of reply correlates with dominance.

Time to start fracking

Opposition to shale gas is a storm in a teacup

The Times has published my op-ed on shale gas:

It is now official: drilling for shale gas by fracturing rock with water may rattle the odd teacup, but is highly unlikely to cause damaging earthquakes. That much has been obvious to anybody who has followed the development of the shale gas industry in America over the past ten years. More than 25,000 wells drilled have caused a handful of micro-seismic events that can barely be felt.

The two rumbles that resulted from drilling a well near Blackpool last year were tiny. To call a two-magnitude tremor an earthquake is a bit like calling a hazelnut lunch. Such tremors happen naturally more than 15 times a year but go unnoticed and they are a common consequence of many other forms of underground work such as coalmining and geothermal drilling. Earthquakes caused by hydroelectric projects, in which dams load the crust and lubricate faults, can be much greater and more damaging. The Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 in 2008 was probably caused by a dam.

Coral reefs have a future

A new study confirms that the threat from CO2 is exaggerated

A new study of the Great Barrier Reef will apparently confirm what I argued in The Rational Optimist that local pollution and over-fishing are a much greater threat to coral reefs than either climate change or changing alkalinity (sometimes wrongly called acidification).

The actual paper will appear in Current Biology, but this is from the press release from James Cook University (I hate it when scientists announce their results by press release before the journal article is available).

Update: here's the article in press, but behind a paywall.

Is eventual eradication of malaria possible?

A new technique for sterilising certain mosquitoes looks promising

After a break of two weeks, here is my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

April 25 is World Malaria Day, designed to draw attention to the planet's biggest infectious killer. The news is generally good. Never has malaria, which is carried by the Anopheles mosquito, been in more rapid retreat. Deaths are down by a third in Africa over the past decade alone, and malaria has vanished from much of the world, including the U.S.

As so often happens in the battle against disease, however, evolution aids the enemy. The selection pressure on pathogens to develop resistance to new drugs is huge. In recent weeks, the emergence on the Thai-Myanmar border of malaria strains resistant to artemisin, a plant-derived drug, have led to pessimistic headlines and reminders of the setback caused by resistance to the drug chloroquine, which began in the 1950s.

Nature's dynamic non-balance

Emma Marris's fine new book on ecology

Belatedly, here is my Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal on 24 March 2012.

In her remarkable new book "The Rambunctious Garden," Emma Marris explores a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology, namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by human beings. "A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem," she writes. "The ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild."

17 reasons to be cheerful

Reader's Digest on rational optimism

Rival theories for a global cooling

Did a cosmic impact cause the Younger Dryas cooling?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

Scientists, it's said, behave more like lawyers than philosophers. They do not so much test their theories as prosecute their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do not fit-a failing known as confirmation bias. They then accuse their opponents of doing the same thing. This is what makes debates over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so polarized.

But just because the prosecutor is biased in favor of his case does not mean the defendant is innocent. Sometimes biased advocates are right. An example of this phenomenon is now being played out in geology over the controversial idea that a meteorite or comet hit the earth 12,900 years ago and cooled the climate.

Diamandis and Kotler reply

Maybe I was too pessimistic

From the Ideas Market Blog at the wall Street Journal:

Last month, the Review columnist Matt Ridley discussed a new book called "Abundance," by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which argues that the future will be "better than you think." (Diamandis is founder of the X Prizes, which reward breakthroughs in technology, medicine, energy and other areas.) One driver of progress, the authors say, is "dematerialization," defined by Ridley as "a reduction in the quantity of stuff needed to produce a product" (think of computers that grow ever smaller but more powerful). Ridley largely endorsed their vision of greater returns on improved technology, but offered a few caveats:

The authors have submitted a response to that objection: "This may turn out to be the case," they write,

Blurring the line between genetic and infectious disease

Wired for culture

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

The island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, is just 13 miles across, yet it has five distinct native languages. Papua New Guinea, an area only slightly bigger than Texas, has 800 languages, some spoken by just a few thousand people. "Wired for Culture," a remarkable new book by Mark Pagel, an American evolutionary biologist based in England, sets out to explain this peculiar human property of fragmenting into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups. His explanation is unsettling.

Evolutionary biologists have long gotten used to the idea that bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes, survival machines that carry genes to the next generation. Think of a salmon struggling upstream just to expend its body (now expendable) in spawning. Dr. Pagel's idea is that cultures are an extension of this: that the way we use culture is to promote the long-term interests of our genes.

The beginning of the end of wind

To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the world's energy that comes from wind turbines today is: zero. Despite the regressive subsidy (pushing pensioners into fuel poverty while improving the wine cellars of grand estates), despite tearing rural communities apart, killing jobs, despoiling views, erecting pylons, felling forests, killing bats and eagles, causing industrial accidents, clogging motorways, polluting lakes in Inner Mongolia with the toxic and radioactive tailings from refining neodymium, a ton of which is in the average turbine - despite all this, the total energy generated each day by wind has yet to reach half a per cent worldwide.

If wind power was going to work, it would have done so by now. The people of Britain see this quite clearly, though politicians are often wilfully deaf. The good news though is that if you look closely, you can see David Cameron's government coming to its senses about the whole fiasco. The biggest investors in offshore wind - Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens - are starting to worry that the government's heart is not in wind energy any more. Vestas, which has plans for a factory in Kent, wants reassurance from the Prime Minister that there is the political will to put up turbines before it builds its factory.

This forces a decision from Cameron - will he reassure the turbine magnates that he plans to keep subsidising wind energy, or will he retreat? The political wind has certainly changed direction. George Osborne is dead set against wind farms, because it has become all too clear to him how much they cost. The Chancellor's team quietly encouraged MPs to sign a letter to No. 10 a few weeks ago saying that 'in these financially straitened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind turbines'.

Dematerialisation and deflating the future

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on dematerialisation:

Economic growth is a form of deflation. If the cost of, say, computing power goes down, then the users of computing power acquire more of it for less-and thus attain a higher standard of living. One thing that makes such deflation possible is dematerialization, the reduction in the quantity of stuff needed to produce a product. An iPhone, for example, weighs 1/100th and costs 1/10th as much as an Osborne Executive computer did in 1982, but it has 150 times the processing speed and 100,000 times the memory.

Dematerialization is occurring with all sorts of products. Banking has shrunk to a handful of electrons moving on a cellphone, as have maps, encyclopedias, cameras, books, card games, music, records and letters-none of which now need to occupy physical space of their own. And it's happening to food, too. In recent decades, wheat straw has shrunk as grain production has grown, because breeders have persuaded the plant to devote more of its energy to making the thing that we value most. Future dematerialization includes the possibility of synthetic meat-produced in a lab without brains, legs or guts.

Reversing extinction

The fruit of a narrow-leaved campion, buried in permafrost by a ground squirrel 32,000 years ago on the banks of the Kolyma river in Siberia, has been coaxed into growing into a new plant, which then successfully set seed itself in a Moscow laboratory. Although this plant species was not extinct, inch by inch scientists seem to be closing in on the outrageous goal of bringing a species back from the dead. I don't expect to live to see a herd of resurrected mammoths roaming the Siberian steppe, but I think my grandchildren just might.

The mammoth is the best candidate for resurrection mainly because flash-frozen ones with well-preserved tissues are regularly found in the Siberian permafrost. Occasionally these have been fresh enough to tempt scientists to cook and eat them, usually with disappointing results. Just last week a Chinese paleontologist in Canada, Xing Lida, filmed himself frying and eating what he said was a small mammoth steak. Cells from such carcasses have been recovered, encouraging a rivalry between Japanese and Russian scientists to be the first to revive one of these huge, elephant-like mammals by cloning. Four years ago the mammoth genome was sequenced, so we at least now know the genetic recipe.

The news of the resurrected flower does, apparently, remove one obstacle. After 32,000 years the plant's DNA had not been so damaged by natural radioactivity in the soil as to make it unviable, which is a surprise. Mammoth carcasses are often much younger - the youngest, on Wrangel Island, being about 4,700 years old, contemporary with the Pharoahs. So the DNA should be in even better shape.

Why derive morality from superstition

For people who profess to be kind and tolerant, the defenders of Christianity can be remarkably unpleasant and intolerant. For all his frank and sometimes brusque bluster, I cannot think of anything that Richard Dawkins has said that is nearly as personally offensive as the insults that have been deluged upon his head in the past few days.

"Puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant," snaps one commentator. Running a "Foundation for Enlightening People Stupider than Professor Richard Dawkins," scoffs another. Descended from slave owners, smears a third, visiting the sins of a great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather upon the son (who has made and given away far more money than he inherited).

In all the coverage of last week's War of Dawkins Ear, there has been a consistent pattern of playing the man, not the ball: refusing to engage with his ideas but thinking only of how to find new ways to insult him. If this is Christian, frankly, you can keep it.

Flaming and soul baring -- online honesty

In defense of Richard Dawkins

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the good and the bad consequences of our surprising internet honesty:

It is now well known that people are generally accurate and (sometimes embarrassingly) honest about their personalities when profiling themselves on social-networking sites. Patients are willing to be more open about psychiatric symptoms to an automated online doctor than a real one. Pollsters find that people give more honest answers to an online survey than to one conducted by phone.

But online honesty cuts both ways. Bloggers find that readers who comment on their posts are often harshly frank but that these same rude critics become polite if contacted directly. There's a curious pattern here that goes against old concerns over the threat of online dissembling. In fact, the mechanized medium of the Internet causes not concealment but disinhibition, giving us both confessional behavior and ugly brusqueness. When the medium is impersonal, people are prepared to be personal.

When the crowd solves problems

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on citizen science:

The more specialized and sophisticated scientific research becomes, the farther it recedes from everyday experience. The clergymen-amateurs who made 19th-century scientific breakthroughs are a distant memory. Or are they? Paradoxically, in an increasing variety of fields, computers are coming to the rescue of the amateur, through crowd-sourced science.

Last month, computer gamers working from home redesigned an enzyme. Last year, a gene-testing company used its customers to find mutations that increase or decrease the risk of Parkinson's disease. Astronomers are drawing amateurs into searching for galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The modern equivalent of the Victorian scientific vicar is an ordinary person who volunteers his or her time to solving a small piece of a big scientific puzzle.

Out of Africa, but when?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the exodus from Africa, either 125,000 years ago or 65,000 years ago.

Everybody is African in origin. Barring a smattering of genes from Neanderthals and other archaic Asian forms, all our ancestors lived in the continent of Africa until 150,000 years ago. Some time after that, say the genes, one group of Africans somehow became so good at exploiting their environment that they (we!) expanded across all of Africa and began to spill out of the continent into Asia and Europe, invading new ecological niches and driving their competitors extinct.

There is plenty of dispute about what gave these people such an advantage-language, some other form of mental ingenuity, or the collective knowledge that comes from exchange and specialization-but there is also disagreement about when the exodus began. For a long time, scientists had assumed a gradual expansion of African people through Sinai into both Europe and Asia. Then, bizarrely, it became clear from both genetics and archaeology that Europe was peopled later (after 40,000 years ago) than Australia (before 50,000 years ago).

Why do diseases cause species decline?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the role of disease in species conservation:

Some beekeepers, worried by the collapse of their bee colonies in recent years, are pointing a finger this month at a class of insecticide (neo-nicotinoids) that they think is responsible for lowering the insects' resistance to disease. They may be right, but I'm cautious. History shows that, again and again, blaming chemicals for the decline of a species has prematurely exonerated the real culprit, which is often disease alone.

The role of parasites in causing species to decline is often overlooked. Native European red squirrels, for example, have long been retreating in Britain at the hands of the American gray squirrel, which menagerie-owning aristocrats introduced in the 19th century. For years it was thought to be the competition for food that prevented the squirrels' co-existence, but now scientists place most of the blame on a parapox virus that causes a mild illness to the grays but kills the reds.

Where blue eyes came from

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on gene-culture co-evolution:

Human beings, we tend to think, are at the mercy of their genes. You either have blue eyes or you do not (barring contact lenses); no amount of therapy can change it. But genes are at the mercy of us, too. From minute to minute, they switch on and off (i.e., are actively used as recipes to make proteins) in the brain, the immune system or the skin in response to experience. Sunbathing, for example, triggers the expression of genes for the pigment melanin.

As a recent study confirms, on a much longer time scale, genes are even at the mercy of culture. The paradigmatic example is lactose tolerance. All mammals can digest lactose sugars in milk as babies, but the lactase gene switches off at weaning when no longer needed. In much of Europe and parts of Africa, by contrast, most people can digest lactose even as adults, because the lactase gene remains switched on. (About 90% of East Asians and 70% of South Indians are lactose-intolerant to some degree.)

On Ice

One of my favourite writers these days is Willis Eschenbach, whose essays at wattsupwiththat often combine ingenious scientific rationality with lyrical prose. Here he is on the subject of the sea ice off Alaska:

My point in this post? Awe, mostly, at the damaging power of cold. As a seaman, cold holds many more terrors than heat. When enough ice builds up on a boat's superstructure, it rolls over and men die. The sun can't do that. The Titanic wasn't sunk by a heat wave.

The thing about ice? You can't do a dang thing about it. You can't blow up a glacier, or an ice sheet like you see in the Bering Sea above. You can't melt it. The biggest, most powerful icebreaker can't break through more than a few feet of it. When the ice moves in, the game is over.

The distorting of the human sex ratio

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal: Even a rational optimist is pessimistic about some things. Here's one: the gradual distortion of the human sex ratio by sex-selective abortion. A new essay by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt concludes that "the practice has become so ruthlessly routine in many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very population structures." He finds "ample room for cautious pessimism" in the fact that this phenomenon is still very much on the increase.

For obscure reasons, the human sex ratio is always slightly male-biased, but in the natural state it rarely goes above 105 male births per 100 female ones, except in small samples. In China's last mini-census in 2005, the ratio was nearly 120 to 100 and in some districts over 150. That this is caused by sex-selective abortion (and not, for example, by a hepatitis-B epidemic, which can favor male births) is proved by a ratio of 107 to 100 among first-born children but nearer 150 among ones born later.

China is not the only country where this is happening. By the early 21st century, all four Asian "tigers"-South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan-had a "naturally impossible" ratio of 108 or higher. India has an increasing ratio, as high as 120 in some states. Even some European and central Asian countries (including Albania, Georgia and even Italy) have unnaturally male-biased births. Nearly half the world falls in this category.

The best explanation in the world

Each year, John Brockman's website, The Edge, asks a question and gets many answers to it. This year, the question is: What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? Some of the answers are fascinating. Here's mine:

It's hard now to recall just how mysterious life was on the morning of 28 February 1953 and just how much that had changed by lunchtime. Look back at all the answers to the question "what is life?" from before that and you get a taste of just how we, as a species, floundered. Life consisted of three-dimensional objects of specificity and complexity (mainly proteins). And it copied itself with accuracy. How?

How do you set about making a copy of a three-dimensional object? How to do you grow it and develop it in a predictable way? This is the one scientific question where absolutely nobody came close to guessing the answer. Erwin Schrodinger had a stab, but fell back on quantum mechanics, which was irrelevant. True, he used the phrase "aperiodic crystal" and if you are generous you can see that as a prediction of a linear code, but I think that's stretching generosity.

The slow cooling of our interglacial

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, with added links and charts. On interglacials. The entire 10,000-year history of civilization has happened in an unusually warm interlude in the Earth's recent history. Over the past million years, it has been as warm as this or warmer for less than 10% of the time, during 11 brief episodes known as interglacial periods. One theory holds that agriculture and dense settlement were impossible in the volatile, generally dry and carbon-dioxide-starved climates of the ice age, when crop plants would have grown more slowly and unpredictably even in warmer regions.

This warm spell is already 11,600 years old, and it must surely, in the normal course of things, come to an end. In the early 1970s, after two decades of slight cooling, many scientists were convinced that the moment was at hand. They were "increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age," said Time in 1974. The "almost unanimous" view of meteorologists was that the cooling trend would "reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century," and "the resulting famines could be catastrophic," said Newsweek in 1975.

Since then, of course, warmth has returned, probably driven at least partly by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. A new paper, from universities in Cambridge, London and Florida, drew headlines last week for arguing that these emissions may avert the return of the ice age. Less noticed was the fact that the authors, by analogy with a previous warm spell 780,000 years ago that's a "dead ringer" for our own, expect the next ice age to start "within about 1,500 years." Hardly the day after tomorrow.

Noise versus signal

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal: Coral reefs around the world are suffering badly from overfishing and various forms of pollution. Yet many experts argue that the greatest threat to them is the acidification of the oceans from the dissolving of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.

The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."

This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem you've never heard of."

Catching the species in the act of being born

My Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal on 1 January 2012 is here:

Here's a New Year's thought. With some nine million species on the planet, and with each species lasting a million years on average, about nine species will go extinct naturally this coming year (with more, almost certainly, going extinct unnaturally). But about nine new species also will be born in 2012.

When less means more

Here is the Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, published on 24th December.

Which American city has more inhabitants: San Antonio or San Diego? More Germans than Americans get the answer right (San Diego). What about Hanover or Bielefeld? More Americans than Germans get the answer right (Hanover). In each case, the foreigners pick the right answer by choosing the city they have heard more about, assuming that it's bigger. The natives know too much and let the excess information get in the way.

This is an example of a "heuristic," a highfalutin name for a "rule of thumb" or "gut feeling." Most business people and physicians privately admit that many of their decisions are based on intuition rather than on detailed cost-benefit analysis. In public, of course, it's different. To stand up in court and say you made a decision based on what your thumb or gut told you is to invite damages. So both business people and doctors go to some lengths to suppress or disguise the role that intuition plays in their work.

Don't be such a silly Higgs Boson

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on metaphors for the Higgs Boson.

In 1993 a British science minister, William Waldegrave, was sitting on a train reading the speech that his staff had prepared for him for a physics conference. Finding the draft "unspeakably dull," he decided instead to challenge the assembled scientists to answer, on a single sheet of paper, the question: "What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" He pledged to the winner a bottle of vintage Champagne.

Even before its existence was at last tentatively suggested by an experiment this week, many people had heard of the Higgs boson, the mysterious manifestation of the field that causes matter to have mass, according to a theory minted in 1964. Yet almost nobody, myself included, knows what a Higgs boson is, or at least can give a sensible description of it. This is a serious handicap if Higgsism, as I hereby christen it, is to have an impact on human culture, let alone on technology.

Bioenergy versus the planet

Prospect has published my essay on bioenergy, in which my research left me astonished at the environmental and economic harm that is being perpetrated. Biomass and biofuels are not carbon neutral, can't displace much fossil fuel, require huge subsidies, increase hunger and directly or indirectly cause rain forest destruction. Apart from that, they're fine... Here's the text: From a satellite, the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic looks like the edge of a carpet. While the Dominican Republic is green with forest, Haiti is brown: 98 per cent deforested. One of the chief reasons is that Haiti depends on bioenergy. Wood-mostly in the form of charcoal-is used not just for cooking but for industry as well, providing 70 per cent of Haiti's energy. In contrast, in the Dominican Republic, the government imports oil and subsidises propane gas for cooking, which takes the pressure off forests.

Haiti's plight is a reminder there is nothing new about bioenergy. A few centuries ago, Britain got most of its energy from firewood and hay. Over the years the iron industry moved from Sussex to the Welsh borders to Cumberland and then Sweden in an increasingly desperate search for wood to fire its furnaces. Cheap coal and oil then effectively allowed the gradual reforestation of the country. Britain's forest cover-12 per cent-is three times what it was in 1919 and will soon rival the levels recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086.

Yet if the government has its way, we will instead emulate Haiti. In 2007, Tony Blair signed up to a European Union commitment that Britain would get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Apparently neither he nor his officials noticed this target was for "energy" not "electricity." Since much energy is used for heating, which wind, solar, hydro and the like cannot supply, this effectively committed Britain to using lots of wood and crops for both heat and electricity to hit that target. David Cameron and Chris Huhne, anxious to seem the "greenest of them all," dare not weaken the target, despite its unattainability.

Cheap energy means jobs

I have published the following editorial in City AM, a British financial newspaper: WHEN is a job not a job? Answer: when it is a green job. Jobs in an industry that raises the price of energy effectively destroy jobs elsewhere; jobs in an industry that cuts the cost of energy create extra jobs elsewhere.

The entire argument for green jobs is a version of Frederic Bastiat's broken-window fallacy. The great nineteenth century French economist pointed out that breaking a window may provide work for the glazier, but takes work from the tailor, because the window owner has to postpone ordering a new suit because he has to pay for the window.

You will hear claims from Chris Huhne, the anti-energy secretary, and the green-greed brigade that trousers his subsidies for their wind and solar farms, about how many jobs they are creating in renewable energy. But since every one of these jobs is subsidised by higher electricity bills and extra taxes, the creation of those jobs is a cost to the rest of us. The anti-carbon and renewable agenda is not only killing jobs by closing steel mills, aluminium smelters and power stations, but preventing the creation of new jobs at hairdressers, restaurants and electricians by putting up their costs and taking money from their customers' pockets.

Africa needs biotech crops

In a strongly worded editorial in Science magazine this week, Calestous Juma, the director of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa program at Harvard's Kennedy School, called for a government-led initiative to introduce biotechnology into Africa. "Major international agencies such as the United Nations have persistently opposed expanding biotechnology to regions most in need of its societal and economic benefits," he wrote.

Genetic modification has had a huge impact on agriculture worldwide. More than 15 million farmers now plant GM crops on almost 370 million acres, boosting yields by 10% to 25%. Despite opponents' fears that the technology would poison people, spread superweeds and entrench corporate monopolies, it's now clear that the new crops have reduced not only hunger but pesticide use, carbon emissions, collateral damage to biodiversity and rain-forest destruction.

Yet, while much of North and South America, Australia and Asia are expanding the use of GM crops, only three African countries have adopted them (a further four are conducting trials). Mr. Juma argues that Africa is the place that most needs a boost from biotech: Many of the continent's farmers cannot afford to buy pesticides, so corn and cotton that are genetically insect-resistant could make a big difference there. Over the past five decades, while Asian yields have quadrupled, African yields have barely budged.

The market as the antidote to capitalism

Here's an article I wrote, published by The Times this week.

The anti-capitalists, now more than 50 days outside St Paul's, have a point:

capitalism is proving unfair. But I would like to try to persuade them that the reason is because it is not free-market enough. (Good luck, I hear you cry.) The market, when allowed to flourish, tears apart monopoly and generates freedom and fairness better than any other human institution. Today's private sector, by contrast, is increasingly dominated by companies that are privileged by government through cosy contract, soft subsidy, convenient regulation and crony conversation. That is why it is producing such unfair outcomes.

Perchance to dream

My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is on the purpose of dreams:

Chancing last week on a study about the calming effect of dreams on people with post-traumatic stress disorder, I decided to read recent research on dreams. When I looked at this topic about 20 years ago, it was clear that our ignorance of the purpose of dreaming was almost total, notwithstanding the efforts of Sigmund Freud, Francis Crick and other fine minds. Is that still true?

To my delight, the answer seems to be no. Some ingenious experiments have replaced general ignorance with specific and intriguing ignorance (as is science's habit). We now know enough to know what it is we do not know about dreams.

Coping with only six billion

Here's a column in The Times, imagining what the world might look like if the UN's low-fertilty scenario comes true.

The peak is in sight. Even as the population passes seven billion, the growth rate of the world population has halved since the 1960s. The United Nations Population Division issues high, medium and low forecasts. Inevitably the high one (fifteen billion people by 2100) gets more attention than the low one (six billion and falling). But given that the forecasts have generally proved too high for the past few decades, let us imagine for a moment what might happen if that proves true again.

Africa is currently the continent with the highest birth rates, but it also has the fastest economic growth. The past decade has seen Asian-tiger-style growth all across Africa. HIV is in retreat, malaria in decline. When child mortality fell and economic growth boomed like this in Europe, Latin America and Asia, the result was a rapid fall in the birth rate. For fertility to fall, contraception provides the means, but economic growth and public health provide the motive. So the current slow decline in Africa's birth rate may turn into a plummet.

The importance of context

As a science communicator, I found this fascinating.

The following is an email that was sent in 2003 by a very senior scientist, Stephen Schneider, to a long list of other senior scientists about an article in a newspaper by an economist. Read it and see what you think of the economist, Ross McKitrick at the end. Hello all. Ah ha-the latest idiot-McKitrick-reenters the scene. He and another incompetent had a book signing party at the US Capitol-Mike MacCracken went and he can tell you about it-last summer. McKitrick also had an article-oped, highly refereed of course-in the Canadian National Post on June 4 this year. Here is the URL that worked back then:

It was a scream. He argued there is no such thing as global temperature change, just local-all natural variablity mostly. To prove this he had a graph of temperature trends in Erie Pennsylvania for the past 50 years (this is from memory) which showed a cooling. THat alone proves nothing, but when reading the caption I noticed the trend was for temperature in October and November!! So one station for two months consitituted his "refutation" of global warming-another even dumber than Lomborg economist way out of depth and polemicizing. I showed it to a class of Stanford freshman, and one of them said: "I wonder how many records for various combinations of months they had to run through to find one with a cooling trend?" THe freshman was smarter than this bozo. It is improtant to get that op-ed to simply tell all reporters how unbelievably incompetent he is, and should not even be given the time of day over climate issues, for which his one "contribution" is laughably incompetent. By the way, the Henderson/Castles stuff he mentions is also mostly absurd, but that is a longer discussion you all don't need to get into-check it out in the UCS response to earlier Inhofe polemics with answers I gave them on Henderson/Castles if you want to know more about their bad economics on top of their bad climate science

Double disaster

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the possibility that big meteorites can trigger volcanic activity:

About 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and maybe two-thirds of all other species suddenly died out. For three decades, the dominant explanation for this mass extinction has been that it was probably caused by the impact of a large meteorite.

A layer of iridium-rich rock from roughly the right date is the fingerprint that convicted this extraterrestrial killer (iridium is more common in space than in the Earth's crust). Even the bullet hole has apparently been found in the shape of a 110-mile-diameter crater called Chicxulub off the coast of Mexico. The explosion would have been the equivalent of two million hydrogen bombs.

Man-made earthquakes

My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal: Earthquakes are natural disasters. However much culpability there is afterward about the building standards that may have worsened the death toll or the response of the emergency authorities, nobody is to blame for the actual shock.

At least, not normally. An exception is the phenomenon of "induced seismicity," whereby human activity such as geothermal energy projects, mining, gas drilling or the filling of reservoirs apparently sets off swarms of very small earthquakes where there are susceptible geological faults and in certain kinds of underlying rock.

A recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey concludes, for example, that a nearby shale gas well probably caused a swarm of 43 very small earthquakes (largest magnitude, 2.8) in Garvin County, Okla., last January. A few hours before the quakes began, the well had ceased hydraulic fracturing or "fracking": that is, injecting high-pressure water into the ground to crack deep rocks.

Mr Darcy's lack of deodorant

Here's an interview I did for the Globe and Mail in Toronto during my recent visit to Canada.

Nova Demolishes Klein

Joanne Nova has a really fine essay on Naomi Klein. This is great writing, easily as fluent as Klein herself, only rational. An excerpt:

By building her whole argument on un-scientific quicksand, Klein makes mindless statements that unwittingly apply more to her own arguments than anyone elses. She explores "how the right has systematically used crises-real and trumped up-to push through a brutal ideological agenda designed not to solve the problems that created the crises but rather to enrich elites."

No one uses trumped-up-crises better than the left: Which team is demanding billions to "stop the storms"? And which elites will be enriched? The carbon traders and financiers.


My latest Wall Street Journal Mind and Matter column:

The list of scientific heretics who were persecuted for their radical ideas but eventually proved right keeps getting longer. Last month, Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of quasicrystals, having spent much of his career being told he was wrong.

"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled, adding that the doyen of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with the words: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

You can't change human nature?

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

"You can't change human nature." The old cliché draws support from the persistence of human behavior in new circumstances. Shakespeare's plays reveal that no matter how much language, technology and mores have changed in the past 400 years, human nature is largely undisturbed. Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's indecision, Iago's jealousy, Kate's feistiness and Juliet's love are all instantly understandable.

Recently, however, geneticists have surprised themselves by finding evidence of recent and rapid changes in human genomes in response to the pressures of civilization. For example, fair skin allows more absorption of the sun's ultraviolet rays necessary for the skin to make vitamin D. So when the northern Europeans, living in a climate with little sunshine, started to farm wheat, a food low in vitamin D, they evolved fair skin to compensate and get more of the vitamin.

reactionary, nostalgic pessimists

There's a fine article at Spiked by Tim Black exposing what Robert* Malthus actually said. Malthus was a reactionary nostalgic pessimist who was not just wrong about population growth outstripping food supply. He was also wrong in his cynicism about helping the poor lest they breed more.

(*Everybody calls him Thomas these days, whereas his contemporaries all called him Robert, which was his second name. Calling him Thomas is like calling the first director of the FBI John Hoover.)

Scientific heresy

Mylecture on scientific heresyto the RSA this week has been reprinted, where it has generated much discussion. Thanks to Andrew Montford and Antony Watts for their interest.

From quantity to quality

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

This Halloween, the United Nations declared over the summer, a baby will be born somewhere on Earth who will tip the world's population over seven billion for the first time. Truly do international bureaucrats have the power of prophecy!

The precision is bunk, of course, or rather a public-relations gimmick. According to demographers, nobody knows the exact population of the world to within 100 million. (Incidentally, the record-setting baby will not be the seven billionth human being to have existed, as some press reports have implied-more like the 108 billionth.)

John McCarthy

Sad news of the death of John McCarthy, former professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, who coined the very term "artificial intelligence" in 1955 and invented the LISP programming language in 1958.

McCarthy was a true "progressive" in that he appreciated the rapid and dramatic improvements in human living standards brought about by innovation. It was from McCarthy's website that I first learned of Thomas Babington Macaulay's remarks, in the Edinburgh Review, that I often quote -- "We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason ... On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us".

This alerted me to the startling fact that even 200 years ago, when human living standards had barely begun to improve, intellectuals were already lamenting the imminent and inevitable end of that improvement. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.

Bottom up beats top down at seven billion

Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, has a long article entitled "Just Too Many?", arguing that the world needs to end its taboo on discussing population and population control. This is of course pegged on the United Nations' somewhat gimmicky announcement that the world will pass seven billion people on 31st October. Thugh it is generally a good essay, like so much of the coverage, Maddox's article fails sufficiently to distinguish the top-down approach to population, which did indeed become taboo after 1994, and the bottom-up one, which did not. The bottom up one focuses on economic development and public health, which together drive down birth rates by enabling women to plan smaller families rather than keep breeding heirs and spares. The top-down approach targets birth rates themselves. I would argue that its cruelties should make us cautious before returning to it. I have sent the following letter to the editor at Prospect:

Your population cover story makes a good case that public-sector experts effectively turned their backs on the issue following the intervention of an unusual mixture of conservatives and feminists at the Cairo conference in 1994. Was this silence entirely a bad thing? Do not underestimate the harm done by the coercion recommended in the 1970s by western intellectuals -- and implemented. Egged on by Western governments and pressure groups, coerced sterilisation became a pattern all across Asia in the 1970s. Chinese women were forcibly taken from their homes to be sterilised. Cheered on by Robert McNamara's World Bank, Sanjay Gandhi ran a vast campaign of rewards and coercion to force 8 million poor Indians to accept vasectomies. Yet we now know that bottom-up forces, chiefly public health improvements and economic growth, generally reduce birth rates even faster than top-down coercion (which bodes well for Africa with its recent rapid economic growth). The availability of contraception is necessary but not sufficient. Maybe the inattention of the international quangocracy is not always a bad thing.

After writing this I came across an unusually (for the BBC) well-researched and well-informed essay on this subject by Mike Gallagher on the BBC, which makes the same point in greater detail. Some extracts:

Brass farthing

he Australian has published my review of Donna Laframboise's book here.

The review prompted a tweet from Michael Mann that I was wrong to say the IPCC had dropped the hockey stick. Here's a source: judge for yourself.

Here's the text of the review:

Two numbers

Chris Huhne, the UK energy secretary, boasts that wind farms and other renewable energy schemes will create 9,000 jobs this year. Since they are all subsidised, each one is in effect sponsored by a newly unemployed person elsewhere in the economy. Shale gas already supports 140,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone, up from about zero in 2007. This is without subsidy; in fact, the reverse -- hefty tax revenue. Pennsylvania's population is one-fifth of Britain's.

Africa's Boom

From The Economist comes news that does not surprise me and reinforces my view, aired in mydebate with Bill Gates, that pessimism about Africa is overdone and trade is transforming Africa for the better:

AFRICA has made a phenomenal leap in the last decade. Its economy is growing faster than that of any other continent. Foreign investment is at an all-time high; Senegal has lower borrowing costs than Ireland. The idea of a black African billionaire-once outlandish except for kleptocratic dictators-is commonplace now. At the same time an expanding African middle class (similar in size to those in India and China) is sucking in consumer goods. Poverty, famine and disease are still a problem but less so than in the late 20th century, not least thanks to advances in combating HIV and malaria.

Africa's mood is more optimistic than at any time since the independence era of the 1960s. This appears to be a real turning point for the continent. About a third of its growth is due to the (probably temporary) rise in commodity prices. Some countries have been clever enough to use profits to build new infrastructure. The arrival of China on the scene-as investor and a low-cost builder-has accelerated this trend. Other Asian economies are following its lead, from Korea to Turkey.

All the trappings

Nicely put by Michael Barone:

...A similar but more peaceable fate is befalling believers in what I think can be called the religion of the global warming alarmists.

They have an unshakeable faith that manmade carbon emissions will produce a hotter climate, causing multiple natural disasters. Their insistence that we can be absolutely certain this will come to pass is based not on science -- which is never fully settled, witness the recent experiments that may undermine Albert Einstein's theory of relativity -- but on something very much like religious faith.

No change makes big news

Here is a letter I sent to the editor and deputy editor of The Economist.

A comment on the piece by James Astill about the Berkeley temperature study. Most of the article is a sensible discussion of a deadly dull piece of statistics that changes nothing. But it's topped and tailed with claims that this leaves little room for doubters, and that the warming is "fast". Both these conclusions are badly wrong.

The genetics of bigger chickens

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is the extraordinary story of modern chicken genetics.

Of all the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals in the world, the most abundant species is probably the chicken. At any one time, approximately 20 billion cocks and hens are alive on the planet (though never for long).

The delinquent teenager

Donna Laframboise is a journalist and civil libertarian in Toronto, who made her name as a fearless investigative reporter in the 1990s. She has recently been investigating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has come up with startling results about how its reports are compiled. For those of us who took the IPCC's evaluations of climate at face value when they came out -- I know I did -- and thought that they were based on an impartial and careful process that relied on peer reviewed evidence, these revelations are shocking. Her book The Delinquent Teenager is now available on kindle and will shortly be in paperback. It is one of the most important pieces of investigative journalism in recent years. It demolishes the argument that we need the mainstream media because the blogosphere will never do the hard work of investigative journalism. The opposite is true.

Here I take the liberty of extracting one fairly lengthy tale from the book, but there are many more:

The IPCC's transparency shortcomings have been obvious for some time. In 2005 Steve McIntyre, a Canadian with a PhD Masters degree in mathematics and a flair for statistics, was invited by the IPCC to be an expert reviewer for what would become the 2007 edition of the Climate Bible. McIntyre, who writes blog, was by then a well-known IPCC critic, so this invitation was a promising sign. But it didn't take long for matters to go off the rails.

Sex and the Red Queen

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

Writing about science carries the risk of embarrassment. If you champion a theory and it gets disproved, you have some explaining to do. So it is nice when a theory you choose does win the race.

Gas against wind

Here's an article I wrote for this week's Spectator about UK energy policy. Wind must give way to gas before it ruins us all, and our landscapes.

Which would you rather have in the view from your house? A thing about the size of a domestic garage, or eight towers twice the height of Nelson's column with blades noisily thrumming the air. The energy they can produce over ten years is similar: eight wind turbines of 2.5-megawatts (working at roughly 25% capacity) roughly equal the output of an average Pennsylvania shale gas well (converted to electricity at 50% efficiency) in its first ten years.

Difficult choice? Let's make it easier. The gas well can be hidden in a hollow, behind a hedge. The eight wind turbines must be on top of hills, because that is where the wind blows, visible for up to 40 miles. And they require the construction of new pylons marching to the towns; the gas well is connected by an underground pipe.

We will ROC you

Fenbeagle has done a cartoon featuring a rational optimist...

Hypocrisy and self deception

From My latest Mind and Matter Column at he Wall Street Journal:

The science of evolutionary psychology has flourished in recent years by asking "why" as well as "how" questions about animal and human behavior, and answering them with historical explanations.

After carbon

I have a book review in the Wall Street Journal of Robert Laughlin's book Powering the Future.

These are the first two paragraphs:

Many environmentalists believe that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will cause a climate crisis toward the end of this century. Environmentalists also raise the alarm that we have reached "peak oil" and that fossil fuels will run out by the middle of the century. That both views cannot be true rarely seems to bother those who hold them. Either consequence, we're told, makes the world's conversion to a low-carbon energy system an urgent matter.

Monkey metaphors

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on metaphors and analogies:

Monkeys can reason by using analogy, it seems. In an experiment recently reported in the journal Psychological Science, baboons in a lab proved capable of realizing that a pair of oval shapes is "like" a pair of square shapes and "unlike" a pair made of two different shapes. This finding suggests that you can have analogy without language.

One law for some

Fascinating interview with the founder of Continental Resources Harold Hamm in the Wall Street Journal.

Harold Hamm calculates that if Washington would allow more drilling permits for oil and natural gas on federal lands and federal waters, the government could over time raise $18 trillion in royalties. That's more than the U.S. national debt.

The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota are proving to be huge. possibly 24 billion barrels.

The light at the end of the tunnel

I have an op-ed article in the Times today, arguing that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the world's and the British economy: the long-term gains from living within our means are huge:

Matthew Parris hit a nerve last Saturday with his argument that we have lived beyond our means and must now expect to have to work harder and be 25 per cent poorer. It resonated with me as well as many readers. He cut through all the detail of debt, default and deficits to extract an essential truth. The West has run a pyramid scheme, spending borrowed capital to boost current living standards. From pensions to mortgages, from public spending to consumer extravagance, the reckoning has arrived.

The language window

Here is my latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

There are many mysteries about Ray, the 17-year-old English-speaking "forest boy" who walked into the city hall in Berlin on Sept. 5, claiming to have lived wild in the woods for five years with his father-until his father recently died in a fall. Judging by his rucksack and his speech, he was not a fully feral child, reared by wild animals and unacquainted with language.

The ancient cloud

I have the following opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal, adapted from my forthcoming Hayek lecture.

The crowd-sourced, wikinomic cloud is the new, new thing that all management consultants are now telling their clients to embrace. Yet the cloud is not a new thing at all. It has been the source of human invention all along. Human technological advancement depends not on individual intelligence but on collective idea sharing, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years. Human progress waxes and wanes according to how much people connect and exchange.

Room for all

I published this article in the Ottawa Citizen today:

The world now has almost seven billion people and rising. The population may surpass nine billion by 2050. We, together with our 20 billion chickens and four billion cattle, sheep and pigs, will utterly dominate the planet. Can the planet take it? Can we take it?

From not work to network

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on drug development and network analysis:

Here's a paradox. Every week seems to bring news from a research laboratory of an ingenious candidate cure about to enter clinical trials for a serious disease. Yet the productivity of drugs coming out of clinical trials has been plummeting, and the cost per drug has been rocketing skyward. The more knowledge swells, the more pharmaceutical innovation fails. What's going on?

Maybe we're all conspiracy theorists

My latest Wall Street Journal Mind and Matter column discusses conspiracy theories.

Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, has never received so many angry letters as when he wrote a column for Scientific American debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. Mr. Shermer found himself vilified, often in CAPITAL LETTERS, as a patsy of the sinister Zionist cabal that deliberately destroyed the twin towers and blew a hole in the Pentagon while secretly killing off the passengers of the flights that disappeared, just to make the thing look more plausible.

He tells this story in his fascinating new book, "The Believing Brain." In Mr. Shermer's view, the brain is a belief engine, predisposed to see patterns where none exist and to attribute them to knowing agents rather than to chance-the better to make sense of the world. Then, having formed a belief, each of us tends to seek out evidence that confirms it, thus reinforcing the belief.

TED talk viewings

A new milestone

My TED talk onWhen Ideas Have Sexhas now passed 750,000 views.

Draco among the viruses

Latest Wall Street Journal column is on how anti-virals outwit natural selection:

Draco, who wrote Athens's first constitution in about 620 B.C., decreed that just about every crime should be punishable by death, because that was what petty criminals deserved and he could think of no harsher penalty for serious criminals. "Draconian" means indiscriminate as well as harsh.

Rational Optimist by Skype

Back in June, I could not make it to Idea City in Canada, meeting that chose "ideas having sex as its slogan". But I recorded a talk by Skype and here it is.

Counting species out

I have a piece in today's Times newspaper on extinction of species. Here it is, with added links:

The suitably named Dr Boris Worm, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, led the team that this week estimated the number of species on the planet at 8.7 million, plus or minus 1.3 million. That sounds about right. We human beings have described almost all the mammals, birds, butterflies and other conspicuous creatures, but new beetles, wasps, moths, flies and worms abound in every acre of tropical forest.

Some patterns are clear. Most species are on land; marine life, though just as abundant, is slightly less diverse. Most are in the humid tropics; the rest of the globe is an ecological footnote to the rainforest. Most are animals - though plants, fungi and microbes vastly outweigh us beasts, they tend to come in fewer kinds, perhaps because plants hybridise and bacteria swap genes, blurring the boundaries of species. Most are insects: spiders/mites and molluscs take silver and bronze, but if Planet Earth had a mascot, it would be a ground beetle.

Why we are nice to strangers

Latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

Evolutionists long ago abandoned the idea that natural selection can promote only selfish behavior. In the right circumstances, animals-including human beings-evolve the instinct to be nice (or acquire habits of niceness through cultural evolution). This happens within families but also within groups, where social solidarity promotes the success of the group at the expense of other groups.

Goldilocks heritability

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Hardly any subject in science has been so politically fraught as the heritability of intelligence. For more than a century, since Francis Galton first started speculating about the similarities of twins, nature-nurture was a war with a stalemated front and intelligence was its Verdun-the most hotly contested and costly battle.

The limits of sexual selection

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

What limits the size of a peacock's tail, the weight of a deer's antlers or the virtuosity of a songbird's song? Driven inexorably by the competition to attract mates, these features of animals ought to get ever more elaborate. There was even once a theory-now discredited-that the famously gigantic antlers of the Irish elk became so unwieldy that they caused its extinction. Yet sexual ornaments do not get ever bigger.

This time it's different

The Polar Bear problem

It's not that they are more desperate. it's that they are thriving.

Here is a piece I just published in the Spectator.

DNA calypso

Johnny Berliner made this charming little calypso account of genes and what they are made of. It's concise and precise as well as nice. (Calypso rhyming is catching)

h/t Mark Stevenson.

Where do carbon dioxide emissions come from?

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal:

The nature and nurture sport: talent versus effort

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete," said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports require speed and/or size."

Ancient cousins

The new Siberian hominids and the family tree

Belatedly, here is last week's Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal.

I once had a soft spot for the yeti, known in my youth as the "abominable snowman." As a teenager I avidly devoured stories of hairy bipeds glimpsed through snowstorms, strange cries echoing across glaciers, or enigmatic footprints in the snow. Slowly it dawned on me that the testimony was unreliable, the ecology implausible, the demography impossible and the lack of specimens conclusive.

And the band played on

The not so good old days

I heartily recommend a new book called "And the Band Played On" by Christopher Ward, a friend of mine. It's a best-seller already in the UK. It's about his grandfather, who was the violinist in the band that played as the Titanic sank. But it's not about the sinking, but about what happened afterwards, and in particular the feud that broke about between the violinist's father and his pregnant fiancee's family. It's an astonishing tale of fraud, hoaxes, lawsuits, imprisonment and cruelty that would make a fiction writer blush at having exaggerated.

But, for the purposes of this website, what struck this rational optimist most was the examples of how non-good were the good old days. A world in which a ship's musician has to buy his own uniform on credit, to be deducted from his wages, is not very nice. But a world in which those wages were stopped by his employer at 2.20am on 14 April 1912 is shockingly awful. And a world in which his father then receives a letter pointing out that the wages having been stopped, there is still a sum owing for the uniform buttons, which the father should settle by return -- takes the biscuit. This was also a world in which a seventeen year old girl who devised a cruel hoax to get revenge on her father and stepmother was imprisoned in a brutal jail awaiting trial for deception. Yet I suspect Scotland in 1912 was a lot kinder than it was in 1812 or 1712.

Next time the Archbishop of Canterbury or some pontificating busybody tells me the world is getting worse because people are so much more selfish these days, I will suggest they read this book.

Good for the environment, after all

After 13 years, everybody sensible now knows the GM crops were good for human beings and the environment too. But admitting it is hard.

The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:

Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (, 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last...

This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...


Two environmental trends headed in a good direction

Update: I failed to make clear that negative numbers in the drought severity index implies worse droughts. The two findings below contradict each other. Here is another "greening", of the Sahel:

Britain's economic suicide

A fetish with carbon is driving up the price of electricity and destroying jobs

Here's (belatedly) a piece I published in the Times last week.

British Gas is putting up the cost of heating and lighting the average home by up to 18 per cent, or about £200 a year. Indignation at its profiteering is understandable. But that can only be a part of the story: the combined profits of the big six energy supply companies amount to less than 1.5 per cent of your energy bill, according to the regulator, Ofgem.

Print your own organs?

3D printing may one day work for stem-cell-derived kidneys and concrete building parts

My l atest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on 3D printing:

Serendipity works in curious ways. Earlier this month, on the day before I read news of the successful implanting of a synthetic windpipe grown with a patient's own cells, I happened to have lunch with a civil engineer who told me about the first use of a 3-D printer to print structures in concrete. The two technologies are very different, but as I read more about each, I soon found an eerie convergence.

A debate on labels and acidification

Mark Lynas engages me on several issues

Mark Lynas's new book The God Species contains a few pages that dispute my account of ocean acidification in particular. Mark kindly alerted me to this and asked for my reaction. The result was an exchange, which Mark has put up on his blog here, which I mirror here. I thank Mark for taking my arguments seriously and suggesting an exchange of ideas.

Lynas: In my book The God Species I take science writer Matt Ridley to task for downplaying the dangers of ocean acidification. He responded via email, and I to him. Here is the exchange. Matt's final short responses are also included, indented as 'Ridley2′. Square brackets are mine, for clarification.

Ridley: You say [in The God Species]: "Why not just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts?" Answer: I do. Human beings have serious environmental impacts. I say so and I do not deny them. For example: "Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient runoff and fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae." From megafaunal extinction to alteration of the composition of the atmosphere, I detail lots of changes wrought by humans. On both climate change and ocean acidification, I accept a human alteration of the environment as real. What I argue with is whether the negative impacts are always as great as claimed or the positive ones always as small as claimed. That's quite different from not admitting that there are impacts, serious and otherwise.

Cheering up others

Brian Eno, the musician and writer, is more positive as a result of reading The Rational Optimist:

"That kind of marks the change I've felt in the past year or two. I wouldn't end an album like that now," he says. Drums Between the Bells has a loose, funky feel; it ends with the words, "Everything will be all right". Eno's new-found positivity - partly sparked by eco-thinker and Eno friend Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline and popular science writer Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist - boils down to a belief that we've never had it so good.

"Cultures have a tendency to be pessimistic. The whole of the history of humanity is people going, 'It's all going to fall apart, my God it's looking terrible, we're not going to survive for another 20 years.' But, in fact, on average things have actually been getting better for thousands of years. It's like you're playing roulette in the casino and you keep winning and you think I've got to stop, this is not going to carry on. Well, it has been carrying on, by and large. Most of us in this country live a hundred times better lives than we would have done 100 years ago. So things are getting exponentially better for us, and we can't believe our luck, so there's a tendency to say, 'It can't go on'."

Devils and contagious cancer

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the strange phenomenon of contagious cancer in dogs and Tasmanian devils, and whether it could happen to us. Elizabeth Murchison is speaking about this at the TED Global meeting in Edinburgh next week.

Samuel Johnson prize shortlist

The film of the book

Frank Dikotter's fine -- and vital -- book on Mao's Great famine won the Samuel Johnson prize. But you can see a short film and a discussion about my book on the BBC Culture showhere(from minute 17.17 onwards). It's an honour to have made it to the shortlist.

A Fat tale

Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming

Nic Lewis's discovery of a statistical alteration applied by the IPCC lends strong support to lukwarming

As most people know, I am a lukewarmer -- somebody who accepts carbon dioxide's full greenhouse potential, but does not accept the much more dubious evidence for net positive feedbacks on top, and who therefore thinks that a temperatuire rise of more than 2C in this century is unlikely.

Eating your greenery -- and having it too

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Driving home the other day it occurred to me that almost none of the greenery I could see-trees, garden shrubs, grass shoulders on the highway-was going to be used by humans for food, fuel, clothing or shelter.

Unbleached if not unblemished

New evidence has been published that the Great Barrier Reef is not in trouble from climate change. The effects of bleaching are short-lived and reversible. When I said this in my book, I was patronised from a great height by a bunch of marine biologists in New Scientist. Will they, and New Scientist, now apologise? As I keep saying, coral reefs are indeed under threat from man-made problems -- pollution, overfishing, run-off, but climate change is the least of their worries. Here's the abstract of Osborne et al's paper in PLOS One:

Coral reef ecosystems worldwide are under pressure from chronic and acute stressors that threaten their continued existence. Most obvious among changes to reefs is loss of hard coral cover, but a precise multi-scale estimate of coral cover dynamics for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is currently lacking. Monitoring data collected annually from fixed sites at 47 reefs across 1300 km of the GBR indicate that overall regional coral cover was stable (averaging 29% and ranging from 23% to 33% cover across years) with no net decline between 1995 and 2009. Subregional trends (10-100 km) in hard coral were diverse with some being very dynamic and others changing little. Coral cover increased in six subregions and decreased in seven subregions. Persistent decline of corals occurred in one subregion for hard coral and Acroporidae and in four subregions in non-Acroporidae families. Change in Acroporidae accounted for 68% of change in hard coral. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) outbreaks and storm damage were responsible for more coral loss during this period than either bleaching or disease despite two mass bleaching events and an increase in the incidence of coral disease. While the limited data for the GBR prior to the 1980's suggests that coral cover was higher than in our survey, we found no evidence of consistent, system-wide decline in coral cover since 1995. Instead, fluctuations in coral cover at subregional scales (10-100 km), driven mostly by changes in fast-growing Acroporidae, occurred as a result of localized disturbance events and subsequent recovery.

Here's what i wrote in my book.

Politics clothed in science

Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading. Now he has written a two-part essay on Al Gore and the climate debate (part one; part two) that is, I think, very perceptive. It is angry, hard-hitting, and I don't agree with everything in it, but it somehow gets to to the core of the issue in a way that so much other commentary has not. This is the sort of old-fashioned polemic from somebody with historical perspective that has been lacking on this subject. Here's his conclusion:

The green movement's core tactic is not to "hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.

Another long listing

The Royal Society Book prize

The Rational Optimist is one of 13 books long-listed for the Royal Society Book prize for science books. If I make it to the shortlist, this will be my fifth time on this shortlist. (I have yet to win, though!)

Evolving cures cancer

Tumours evolve -- so must cancer cures

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on cancer and evolution by natural selection:

Last week the American Cancer Society reported that death rates from cancer are falling steadily, at an annual rate of about 1.9% in men and 1.5% in women. A study published this week by the University of Colorado found that most seniors who died after being diagnosed with breast cancer actually lived long enough to have died of something else.

Prevention explains much of the decline in cancer fatalities, especially the drop in smoking. As for treatment, the most promising new options harness the very force that makes cancer so stubbornly virulent in the first place: evolution.

The vested interests in doom

How the left discovered pessimism

Here is an op-ed I wrote for today's Australian newspaper:

POLLYANNA is a fool; Cassandra was wise. As a self-proclaimed "rational optimist" who argues that the world has been getting better for most people and that the future is likely to be better still, I am up against a deep prejudice towards pessimism that dominates the intelligentsia. As John Stuart Mill put it, "not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage".

What is more, pessimism has become a hallmark of the Left, chiefly because it justifies activism. Once upon a time conservatives lamented the way the world had gone to the dogs since the golden age (and some still do), while socialists championed growth, technology and innovation to liberate the working class.

The case of the missing jetpacks

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on how the future turns out:

Last month a crash dummy flew to 5,000 feet above ground level in a personal jet pack. The inventor, New Zealander Glenn Martin, has spent decades on the project and is ready to start selling the device for $100,000 each next year. The gasoline-driven machine can stay aloft for 30 minutes, thanks to what is, in effect, a pair of large leaf-blowers. A parachute provides partial reassurance if something should go wrong.

Mr. Martin's achievement is a reminder that, though we often underestimate the progress of a technology, sometimes we overestimate it. Back in the 1950s it seemed almost obvious that by the 21st century jet packs would be ubiquitous and routine aids to travel. They featured in sci-fi novels and comics and television series like "Lost in Space." A time-traveler who arrived from that era might be impressed by our Internet and mobile phones but amazed at our lack of working jet packs.

Samuel Johnson prize shortlisting for Rational Optimist

One of six books

The Rational Optimist has been short-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize for the best non-fiction book of 2010.

I'm thrilled.

The silence of the media and activists is deafening

More people died of organic, local e coli than at Fukushima and Deepwater Horizon combined, yet the outrage is absent

From Andrew Bolt:

Rich Fisher:

One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill combined.

The precautionary principle does not take into account the deaths caused by NOT adopting a new technology

Were E coli deaths preventable with food irradiation?

My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is about the precautionary principle as exemplified by the German e coli outbreak, which has now killed 29. Less precaution about new technology might have meant fewer deaths:

A technology that might have prevented contaminated produce from infecting thousands of Germans with E. coli was vetoed-by Germany-11 years ago for use in the European Union. Irradiating food with high-voltage electrons is a process that can kill bacteria on or in solid objects, just as pasteurization can kill them in liquid foods.

Determined to be different

What we do changes the wiring of our genes

I have an article in The Conversation, an Australian idea forum:

A second disease goes extinct

Rinderpest joins smallpox in oblivion

I missed this news last month. For the second time in history, human beings have eradicated a disease altogether. This time it is rinderpest, which people cannot get, only cattle so it's not such big news as smallpox or (soon?) polio.

In denial about denial

Owning up to a hoax does not always work

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about what happens when hoaxers own up and nobody believes them. In the interest of space, I had to leave on the cutting room floor my favourite, though fictional, example. In The Life of Brian, Brian insists he is not the Messiah. A woman in the crowd then shouts: ``Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!''

Here's the column:

Trial and Error

Tim Harford's new book understands bottom-up design

I have written the following review of Tim Harford's book Adapt, for Nature magazine:

Charles Darwin's big idea - that blind trial and error can progressively build a powerful simulacrum of purposeful design - got pigeonholed under biology. Yet it always had wider implications in economics, technology and culture. Darwin probably drew some elements of his bottom-up thinking from the political philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment, notably Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Biology is now returning the favour.

Books such as Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (Allen Lane, 2010), Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants (Viking Books, 2010) and Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009) are suffused with concepts from natural selection, as is my own, The Rational Optimist (Fourth Estate, 2010). Tim Harford's Adapt follows this tradition, focusing on the key role of failure - the 'error' in trial and error - in economic and social progress.

Get the fertiliser out. We can feed the world

Farmers can feed the world, if they are allowed to

I have the following op-ed in today's Times:

Oxfam's chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will "absolutely not be enough food" to feed the world's population in a few decades' time.

Such certainty about the future is remarkable, so I downloaded Oxfam's new "report" with interest. Once I got past the fundraising banners, I found a series of assertions that there is a food crisis caused by failures of government "to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest, which means that companies, interest groups and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge, and food". Oxfam is calling for "a new global governance" - effectively the nationalisation of the world food system.

The surprising resilience of continental species

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

A recent paper in the journal Nature concluded that species extinction caused by habitat loss is happening less than half as fast as usually estimated. The normal method for calculating rates of extinction assumes that doomed species merely cling temporarily to a shrunken patch of habitat, on their way to disappearing (an idea called "extinction debt"). Apparently, this isn't the case: Although a larger patch of habitat has more species in it, shrinking a patch does not lead to a proportional rate of species loss.

According to the authors of the study, the biologists Stephen Hubbell and Fangliang He, estimates of extinction rates based on the usual method are "almost always much higher than those actually observed." Though you need a big patch of forest to attract a rare species, you do not need such a big patch to retain it once it is there. Mr. Hubbell added: "The method has got to be revised. It is not right."

Bed news is lumpy, good news is smooth

I sent this letter to the Financial Times:

Sir, Gideon Rachman ("In defence of gloomy columnists", May 24) is right to point out that terrible blips will still happen in an improving world. Another way of making the same point is that good news tends to be gradual, incremental and barely visible, while bad news almost by definition comes in sudden, newsworthy lumps: wars, crashes, disasters, epidemics. It is impossible to see a field of wheat growing, but easy to see it washed away by a flood.

Matt Ridley

Why renewables keep running out

Forests are self-replenishing but easily exhausted; fossil fuels are the opposite

My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

Shale gas emissions are lower

Warmiong potential of methane emissions from gas do not nearly match carbon dioxide emissions from coal

It turns out I was right to be sceptical about the Howarth study claiming that shale gas production produces more greenhouse gases than coal.

Ther's now a definitive study here thoroughly debunking Howarth and showing that shale gas results in 54% less GHG production. Howarth claimed that the gap between gas produced and gas sold indicated leakage. Instead it indicates usage in powering equipment.

This is Howarth's second big mistake. His first last year was to assume that coal mining produced no methane.

Quintuple whammy

Britain's neo-medieval green policy robs the poor to pay the rich

`Greener food and greener fuel' is the promise of Ensus, a firm that opened Europe's largest (£250 million) bio-ethanol plant at Wilton on Teesside last year - and has now shut it down for lack of profitable customers. This is actually the second shut-down at the plant - which takes subsidies and turns them into motor fuel - the first being a three-week refit to try to stop the stench bothering the neighbours.

Welcome to the neo-medieval world of Britain's energy policy. It is a world in which Highland glens are buzzing with bulldozers damming streams for miniature hydro plants, in which the Dogger Bank is to be dotted with windmills at Brobdingnagian expense, in which Heathrow is to burn wood trucked in from Surrey, and Yorkshire wheat is being turned into motor fuel. We are going back to using the landscape to generate our energy. Bad news for the landscape.

A long way from our peak

Sean Corrigan's superb essay on finite resources

Now this is what I call magnificent writing in the sprit of Swift: Sean Corrigan riffs on peak oil, finite resources and the planet's carrying capacity:

It is much better to forget all that Sierra Club/WWF elitist, anti-mankind, horse manure about 'the call on the planet' exerted by us members of the 'plague species' and to take a little Bjorn Lomberg, a smattering of Julian Simon, and a riffle-through of Matt Ridley, regarding the minuscule size of the impact which our tiny little ilk - unimaginably outweighed by living forms we cannot even see - can really expect to exert on the vast, negatively-feedbacked rock which we inhabit-and to glory in the sustained quality of our response to the challenges which confront us, even under the far-from-ideal conditions under which we are usually asked to make it.

For example, just as an exercise in contextualisation, consider the following:-

Making two ears grow where one grew

In praise of the Green Revolution

Here's a piece I wrote for a Times supplement published yesterday in print, not available online.

In the twentieth century, the world population quadrupled. By the 1960s, it was growing at 2% a year. Yet, unlike the nineteenth century when the prairies, pampas and steppes had been brought under the plough, little new land was available to grow human food. Some in the western world began to suggest that food aid to the poor was only making the population problem worse. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich forecast famines `of unbelievable proportions' by 1975; the chief organizer of Earth Day, 1970, said it was `already too late to avoid mass starvation'; a professor in Texas said that by 1990 famines would be devastating `all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa'.

Why did this not happen? Why was India a net exporter of food by the mid 1970s? Why did China never revisit the horrors of Mao's famines? Why has famine virtually disappeared from Africa except where foolish dictators cause it? Why has the growth rate of the world population halved to 1%?

Evil, empathy and the evolution of morality

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

It's presumably neither ethical nor practical, but supposing that somebody could sequence Osama bin Laden's genome, which genes would you want to examine to try to understand his violent desires?

I put this question to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the author of a new book called "The Science of Evil" (and a cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen). He replied that there is no evidence that bin Laden's crimes came from his nature, rather than from his experiences, so you might find nothing.

Spectator Diary

Random thoughts on gas, songs, weather, walls and dead flies

I wrote this week's Spectator diary (no link yet):

A day in London for the launch of my new report `The Shale Gas Shock', published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I argue that shale gas calls the bluff of the renewable energy movement in the same way that genetically modified crops called the bluff of the organic farming movement. Just as GM allows the organic dream of drastic cuts in pesticide use to come true without high cost, so shale gas promises gradually to displace both coal (in electricity generation) and oil (in transport), drastically cutting carbon emissions without needing subsidy. Since subsidy is the lifeblood of most of the busybodies in the energy business, and since good news is no news, few people turned up for my report's launch. Back in the north, watching Newcastle United unconvincingly defeat Birmingham at St James's Park, I tried to explain `Blaydon Races' to my wife's Swedish cousin. Tyneside's national anthem chronicles no climactic battle, doomed love affair, prolonged feud or heroic feat, but the crash of a horse-drawn bus when a wheel fell off. Bizarrely, the crash never even happened, let alone on the date mentioned in the second line, 9th June 1862 - four days after the song was first performed by the song's writer, Geordie Ridley (no relation). Apparently the only bit that came true, in a verse added after the event, is the line (in Ridley's spelling) `The rain it poor'd aw the day an' myed the groons quite muddy'. By last weekend, it had not done that for weeks. I realised the drought was getting to me when I dreamed about rain. For weeks we have stared at the sky, and the web page of the Met Office rainfall radar, in the hope of a smudge that might presage a deluge. But still the sun shone every dawn, promising (in the Sarah Miles' character's words from the film White Mischief) ``another ****ing beautiful day''. The barley is beginning to suffer, though it is not yet at the point of no return. A friend says in Iowa snow and frost has delayed the maize planting to the point where it is almost too late. This is weather, not climate: noise, not signal. Just like last December's cold, or Alabama's tornadoes, or Queensland's floods, things are well within the pattern of normal variation. The global average temperature in April was 0.12 of a degree above the long term average, according to satellites: after 30 years of supposedly worrying warming. Not that this will stop the climate preachers claiming the drought as evidence of Gaia trampling out her grapes of wrath. Watch for the have-it-both-ways words: `while no single event can be blamed on climate change, this is the sort of weather we can expect more of.' The barley is grown on contract for Famous Grouse whisky. Apparently, because there is not enough winter barley in Scotland these days, they have had to redefine Scotland to Hadrian's old border, the wall, and we are north of that. Can we vote in Scotland's independence referendum, then? Driving along the military road, atop Hadrian's wall, on another ****ing beautiful evening, I ponder a simple question: did it work? We keep telling ourselves it was an act of visionary genius to build an eighty-mile whinstone border fence with watchtowers, but maybe it was just a bureaucratic folly, signed into existence by a distracted emperor with whom nobody dared argue and then found to be Maginot-useless at stopping regular barbarian incursions. Given what we know about the relentless decay into self-serving incompetence of all modern monopolies - public or private - I suspect we are too forgiving in our accounts of ancient ones, the Roman army included. As I drive, a blizzard of hawthorn flies and other insects die (dies?) on my windscreen. Judging by the Geiger-counter noise they make, it must be hundreds a minute. And there are millions of cars on the roads. Say ten billion deaths a day in Britain alone. Does this worry Jain or Buddhist drivers, who don't like killing living things? I google (actually Bing) the question and immediately find a Buddhist who advises sticking Tibetan mantras on the car so that `even if the insects get struck by the car and die, at least they touched the mantras and purify their negative karma.' A bit like papal indulgences, or carbon offsets. On Saturday night, the rain came.


The BBC draws no lessons from its relentless, and relentlessly wrong, alarmism

I stumbled on a BBC television program this evening (watch it here), which was unintentionally revealing. It was a compilation of extracts over several decades from its flagship science series `Horizon', all on the theme of the `end of the world'. The episodes covered asteroids, supervolcanoes, contagious earthquakes, bird flu, the Y2K computer bug, the greenhouse effect, the melting of Antarctica, the collpase of the Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.

In every episode, the alarm was maximised, the worst case emphasised, the language ludicrously extreme. Not one hint was allowed, even in tonight's commentary linking the episodes, that perhaps the failure of these extreme predictions of disaster should lead to just a little caution about continuing apocaholism.

The BBC's unbalanced championing of alarm continues.

Credit for cost-cutters

New technologies raise living standards, not when they are invented but when their cost falls within most people's range

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new technologies.

Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.

Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a new pattern so that the current can take many different paths through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of the panel is no longer limited to the output of the worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell would cut the output of the whole panel.

Wrong about running out

I published an article in The Times this week about fossil fuel reserves:

Booming demand and stagnant supply drove oil prices to $125 a barrel last week. Is this a sign that fossil fuels are running out? It is more likely a sign that the cheap-oil age is giving way to the cheap-gas age. As the oil price heads north, the gas price is drifting south.

In 1865 a young economist named W. S. Jevons published a book titled The Coal Question in which he argued that Britain's "present lavish use of cheap coal" could not continue as coal would soon run out and continued prosperity was therefore "physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity." Gladstone, as Chancellor, found Jevons' "grave and ... urgent facts" so persuasive that he proposed to Parliament, with the support of John Stuart Mill, to retire the national debt while the good times lasted.

The Shale gas shock

Yes, it really will change the world energy scene, mainly because it is low-cost

Read my report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on The Shale Gas Shock here.

The foreword is by Freeman Dyson.

This is the summary

The Hayek prize

The Rational Optimist has won the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute. I will be giving the Hayek Lecture when I accept the prize later in the year. The Hayek Prize honors the book published within the past two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and individual liberty. The Hayek Prize, with its $50,000 award, is among the world's most generous book prizes. It was conceived and funded by Manhattan Institute trustee Tom Smith to recognize the influence of F.A. Hayek and to encourage other scholars to follow his example. The winner of the Hayek Prize is chosen from among the nominations by a selection committee of distinguished economists, journalists, and scholars. Past winners include: William Easterly for The White Man's Burden, Amity Shlaes for The Forgotten Man, and, most recently, Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds for Money, Markets & Sovereignty.

This is a great honour because my central themes about collective intelligence and spontaneous order are in many ways prefigured in F.A.Hayek's work, and his ideas on the evolutionary nature of economic progress are ones that I share and have built on.

The Rational Optimist has also won a silver medal Axiom Business Book Award.

Vote for nutters and you can vote twice

I don't have terribly strong views on the alternative-vote referendum that Britain holds this week. But I found this radio exchange on the BBC between John Humphreys and the prime minister, David Cameron, remarkable. If even Humphreys does not know how the system would allow the second votes of extremists to be counted more than those of moderates (and he clearly does not), then it does not sound like a comprehensible system.

DC: " start counting some people's votes more than once".

JH: "No, you don't. That simply isn't true, that you count some votes more than once."

Perishability and democracy

Food that can be stored can be traded and trade leads to democracy

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on grain, fruit and the economic underpinnings of democracy.

When I was young, I had a mug on a shelf in my bedroom, and on it was a poem about a farmer-a simple hymn to self-sufficiency. Here's a bit of it:

I eat my own lamb, My own chickens and ham I shear my own fleece and I wear it. I have lawns, I have bowers I have fruits, I have flowers The lark is my morning alarmer.

Giving money for lobbying for money

The circular nature of some subsidies

Update: the Taxpayers' Alliance has a major report on this issue, by Matthew Sinclair, which concluded that

Over £37 million was spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in 2007-08. That is nearly as much as the £38.9 million all three major political parties combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005 election. But, the true amount spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning may be much higher as this report has taken a conservative approach, focussing just on the most clear-cut examples.]

Is anybody else as shocked by this as I am?

Julian Simon on rational optimism

Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it has aged not at all:


Nobody mentioned the Spanish Inquisition

Lord (Chris) Patten, new chairman of the BBC Trust, has been sounding off, militantly, at the militancy of atheists.

He scored a bit of an own goal, though, with this remark:

The origin of joy

Why do we like springtime so much?

Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the year than I said. See below.

A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday's Times:

I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.

My genes are my own

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the regulation of genetic testing

I just took a detailed genetic test by sending some spit to a firm in California and looking up the results on the Net. It seems I'm probably descended from a peculiarly fecund fourth-century Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages and a slightly more unusual Mesopotamian Neolithic matriarch. Oh, and I have mostly average risk of most diseases: The medical part of the test gave me a bit of risk here, a bit of reassurance there, nothing very drastic.

Econophobia vs ecophilia

Economics for scientists

In my experience, scientists often have a reflexive contempt for economics. Speaking as a scientist who came to understand economics after leaving academia, I find this attitude frustrating, because I see how they miss the fundamentally bottom-up, emergent, evolving nature of human society that the field of economics strives to understand (even as they often acknowledge the bottom-up, emergent nature of evolution and of ecosystems).

Twain's half full glass

A nineteenth century blast of rational optimism

Peter Risdon writes to draw to my attention what Mark Twain wrote to Walt Whitman on this 70th birthday:

Effect and cause

Getting cause and consequence confused is a surprisingly common error in science

Black propaganda

The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for one will never trust a story from Black again.


So here are a few things he should have told you about the other side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about as partisan as the BBC.


Alan Carlin has a peer reviewed paper in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which concludes that climate policy is, in my terminology, a tourniquet for a nosebleed:

The economic benefits of reducing CO2 emissions may be about two orders of magnitude less than those estimated by most economists because the climate sensitivity factor (CSF) is much lower than assumed by the United Nations because feedback is negative rather than positive and the effects of CO2 emissions reductions on atmospheric CO2 appear to be short rather than long lasting.

The costs of CO2 emissions reductions are very much higher than usually estimated because of technological and implementation problems recently identified.

Serial thriller

The Times has been serialising seven chapters of The Rational Optimist for a week each.

The last one is available now.

Alzheimer's and protein solubility

The discovery, announced this week, of several genetic mutations that predispose people toward Alzheimer's disease is intriguing, because the genes are associated with cholesterol metabolism and inflammation. The Alzheimer's jigsaw is a long way from being complete, but the pieces are emerging, and this new evidence fits quite nicely with the other pieces in suggesting a role for inflammation.

Piece 1 is the immediate cause of Alzheimer's disease: the appearance of insoluble "plaques" made of a small protein called amyloid beta (A-beta for short) inside brain cells. These plaques block the traffic of molecules in the cells. Eventually another small protein, called tau, also starts to crystallize in this way to form "tangles." Both symptoms are diagnostic of Alzheimer's, and similar ones characterize other neurological syndromes such as Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob's.

Puzzle piece 2 is the APOE gene on chromosome 19, long known as a powerful influence on whether you will get Alzheimer's disease. Having two copies of the 4 version of the gene makes you 20 times more likely than average to get the symptoms before the age of 75. (Having at least one copy of the 2 version makes you less likely than average to get the symptoms.) One of APOE's jobs is to break down plaques, and the 4 version is inefficient at this task.


As I keep saying, shale gas is indeed revolutionising world energy supply.

The US Energy Information Administration officially uses the word `vast' for shale gas resources outside the US:

Although the shale gas resource estimates will likely change over time as additional information becomes available, the report shows that the international shale gas resource base is vast

More for less

The Tourniquet Theory

I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind paywall)

Thinning vouchers

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain, solution to obesity

Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example. Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers. But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing obesity is working.

Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters, virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans, calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans, monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and they've all largely failed.

Keeping an open mind about the sun

Correlation ain't causation.

But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than anything relating to carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate, before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide could be at work.

Sunny side

Rational Optimism in a tabloid

To mark today's UK publication of The Rational Optimist in paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:

FOR the past month, the news has been all bad - war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, inflation, cuts... and the cricket.

The anxiety of choice versus the tyranny of others choosing for us

Andrew Mayne on social biases in studies of the psychology of choice

Guest post by Andrew Mayne

"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the individual, but for society."

High hanging fruit

Tim Worstall riffs on William Baumol to fascinating effect:

One way of putting which is that increasing labour productivity in services is more difficult than improving it in manufacturing. Canonically, we cannot get a symphony orchestra to be more productive by playing at twice the speed. So, ally this with wages being determined by average productivity, we'll see the amount we need to spend on labour to get services to rise against the amount we need to spend on labour to get manufactures. Services will become more expensive relative to manufactures over time.

However, this is not certain. A tendency, yes, but not a certainty. For it is possible, through innovation, to turn a service into, if not a manufacture, at least an automated operation. Think replacing bank clerks with ATMs. Skilled typists with dictation software. We can record the symphony once and play it many times on a gramophone/Walkman/iPod.

Nuclear crony capitalism

As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the time when my doubts have been growing.

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

The Cartesian Spectator

My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new book Soul Dust

In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings. Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."

Nuclear's future

Time for a re-boot to find a cheaper design?

I have written two articles in the past few days on the implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident? drama? -- not sure what the right word is).

This was for The Times on 16th March:

Leviathan versus Behemoth

Wealth and technology make the death toll smaller, not larger

The biggest natural killers of the last decade -- Haiti's earthquake, Burma's cyclone and Sumatra's tsunami -- were all far, far more lethal because they struck poor countries.

Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail writes:

Of course, the modern world is better equipped than the ancients to survive these cataclysmic disasters. We have stronger buildings, better communications and international aid agencies to help the recovery process. But older societies had a more realistic sense of their place in the world.

Which would you rather have? A more realistic sense of your place in the world -- or your life? The remarkable thing about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is how many more they would have killed if Japan had still been a poor country.

A martyred and plagiarized heretic

Let's give credit to a great founder of the English language, and not a committee

This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:

This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But I have an uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.

Maritime Man

Did the ancestors of modern humans beings spend a lot of time by the seaside?

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Photo: Jon Erlandson

s a mobile signal now a necessity rather than a luxury?

The Times ran this column by me last week:

When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries were silent, mute, lifeless.

Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works' is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.

Closing the black box

atest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

When did you last read an account of how microchips actually work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they work.

My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the technology becomes a black box.

Your genes are your own to test

Don't let physicians have a gate-keeping role between you and your genetic information

Speaking in hands before tongues?

he intriguing theory that language evolved for gesture first and speech later

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:

Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that stuttering is more common among the left-handed.

The connection between handedness and speech runs deep. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather than speech.

Curry on the hockey stick

Who dried out the Aral sea?

The other day at a talk I was asked, as I often am, whether I agree that only putting the state in control can clean up the environment. I wish I had then read this, from the blog at Cafe Hayek: a letter sent to the Los Angeles Times:

A time of magnetic flux

Are the magnetic poles about the flip? Unlikely.

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about the weakening of the magnetic field and, more generally, the question of how we scare ourselves by knowing more:

The earth's magnetic field is weakening at an accelerating rate. It is 15% weaker than it was at the time the north magnetic pole was "discovered"-and claimed for King William IV-by a British explorer in 1831. Should we be worried?

Context is all

A small increase in downpours would be vastly offset by a huge fall in winter deaths

There is a lot of fuss about two new papers arguing, from mathematical models, that extreme downpours have become and will become more common in thenorthern hemisphereand specifically inBritainas a result of man-made climate change.

Let's ignore the fact that this looks awfully similar to the habit of blaming specific weather events on climate trends, something we `lukewarmers' (who think climate change is real but slow enough to adapt to through the foreseeable future) are reprimanded for doing when we point out that an especially cold winter or cool summer weakens the case for the alarming version of the theory. So now we can do that too, can we?

Let's ignore the fact that neither paper comes up with any actual evidence that greenhouse gases have caused more extreme downpours - other than circumstantial correlation. Their sole argument is that they cannot think of any other explanation for the increase in downpours. Or as the BBC puts it:

Seeing a cloud in every silver lining

Ever since opening my own eyes by researching my book, I keep a watching brief for egregious examples of pessimistic bias in the media. Once your eyes adjust, the media's tendency to spot a cloud in every silver lining is very striking.

But just as striking is its ability to ignore anything that reaches optimistic conclusions.

As I have mentioned before, almost nobody has heard of the CO2-fertilisation effect. There is a new book by the Idsos that is well worth reading on this: there is a huge peer-reviewed literature on the benefits of CO2 enrichment and it is skilfully summarised here.

Dunbar's number and individual differences

Certain brain lobes are bigger in those with more friends

My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal is on Dunbar's number.

My Family and Other Animals

I was on BBC Radio 4's programme A Good Read (the link allows you to listen again) this week, where I recommended the book that was my favourite as a child, and probably still is: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. The others chose A Game of Hide and Seek and Great Expectations.

How to unlearn pessimism

Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, on `unlearning':

For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding. Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.

I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning-"disenthrall"-in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."

Feeding nine billion people

A debate on Al Jazeera

I took part in a debate on whether we can feed the world on Al Jazeera television with Dvaid Frost. Video here.

Consensus about what?

We keep hearing that there is a consensus about climate change, but it includes a wide range of possibilities

Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate change.

Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.

An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:

The personalities of the elements

Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's delightful chemistry book, Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and finding specialised roles for individuals in society:

The best science writing emulates fiction, creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968); Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem, 1997).

Why nationalise trees?

Britain's Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest

Since its plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission's land were leaked the press last October, the government has found itself subject to a sustained lobbying campaign. The commission has wheeled out its friends to tell the press what an irreplaceable paragon of environmental virtue it is, and specifically how much access to the countryside will be lost if its land is sold.

I have learned that when the government's proposals are put to public consultation next week, this particular charge will be found to be simply wrong. All sales of land will be subject to the same access provisions as now. So the hyperventilating lobbyists, from ramblers to baronesses, can calm down: the Forest of Dean will not suddenly be closed. It was the Labour government that was quietly selling Forestry Commission land in recent years with no such public-access requirement.

The access row is a smokescreen to cover old-fashioned bureaucratic self-preservation. The Forestry Commission is keen to remain a cosy nationalised monopoly. With more than two million acres (600,000 in England) and over 50% of timber production, plus 100% untrammelled power to set the rules of the industry it competes in and dominates, the Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest. It is like the Bank of England running a huge high-street bank, or the BBC owning Ofcom.

Advocating violence

Monbiotic logic: call for peaceful debate and for people to die

George Monbiot is advertising a speaking tour with a poster of himself as a boxer about to hit somebody.

And yet he says in the Guardian:

Why aliens are silent

From the Wall Street Journal, my latest Mind and Matter on stability, the moon and aliens

This month saw the discovery of the first small and "rocky" planet like ours outside the solar system, Kepler 10b, orbiting a star more than 500 light years away. This month also saw terrible floods in part of Australia. Here I intend to link these two news stories. But don't worry-I have not gone astrological on you. The link is not a causal one.

Shale gas changes everything

Some people think I am obsessed by the shale gas revolution and that I might be exaggerating its significance.

Well, if anything I'm underplaying it.

The International Energy Agency says so. Here's what it says (from UPI):

Collective intelligence on the edge

Clever people don't like to think that individual cleverness is not what counts

The Edge's Annual Question is a great compilation of brief effusions from science groupies like me. This year the question was

What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?

My answer was this:

Feeding of the nine billion

I had this article in the Times on 14 January:

The person who tips the world population over seven billion may be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices, have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does starvation loom?

No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population been lower.

A fascination with parabolas

The trajectories of missiles must have interested our ancestors deeply

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about parabolas, the evolution of throwing and angry birds:

The spectacular trajectory of the Angry Birds computer game, from obscure Finnish iPhone app to global ubiquity-there are board games, maybe even movies in the works-is probably inexplicable. Of course it's cheap and charming, but such catapulting success must owe a lot to serendipitous, word-of-mouth luck. Yet, prompted by my friend Trey Ratcliff, who created the gaming-camera app 100 Cameras in 1, I've been musing on whether there's an evolutionary aspect to its allure.

To play Angry Birds, you must use a catapult to lob little birds at structures in the hope of knocking them down on pigs. It's the verb "lob" that intrigues me. There is something much more satisfactory about an object tracing a parabolic ballistic trajectory through space towards its target than either following a straight line or propelling itself.

Oceans on acid again

More evidence that ocean acidification is unlikely to do harm

David Middleton has an interesting essay on ocean pH here.

Like me he finds the literature replete with data suggesting that a realistic reduction in alkalinity caused by CO2 increases will do no net harm to marine ecosystems. For example:

A recent paper in Geology (Ries et al., 2009) found an unexpected relationship between CO2 and marine calcifers. 18 benthic species were selected to represent a wide variety of taxa: "crustacea, cnidaria, echinoidea, rhodophyta, chlorophyta, gastropoda, bivalvia, annelida." They were tested under four CO2/Ωaragonite scenarios...

Asymmetric planning for weather

Could the Brisbane flood have been moderated if officials were not obsessed with drought?

The always perceptive Brendan O'Neill raises an important point about the Brisbane floods, which just may have been exacerbated by a collective institutional obsession with preparing for droughts caused by global warming (hat tip Bishop Hill).

It is worth looking at a document called ClimateSmart 2050, which was published in 2007 by the Queensland government. It outlines Queensland's priorities for the next four decades (up to 2050) and promises to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent during that timeframe. The most striking thing about the document is its assumption that the main problem facing this part of Australia, along with most of the rest of the world, is essentially dryness brought about by global warming. It argues that "the world is experiencing accelerating climate change as a result of human activities", which is giving rise to "worse droughts, hotter temperatures and rising sea levels". We are witnessing "a tendency for less rainfall with more droughts", the document confidently asserted.

As a consequence the government went on warning of water shortages even as the Wivenhoe dam got close to full, apparently forgetting that one of the dam's jobs was to act as a flood shock absorber. As with British snow, the concern seems to have asymmetric, suggesting that climate change is causing officials to forget that weather noise may still be far more important than climate signal even in a slowly warming world.

The new versus the new-new

Latest Mind and Matter column is on why there is nothing so old as the recently new:

Watching friends learn kite-surfing last week, equipped not only with new designs of inflatable kites shaped like pterodactyls but new kinds of harnesses shaped like medieval chastity belts and even new helmets shaped like Elizabethan sleeping caps, it occurred to me that nothing becomes obsolete so fast as something new. For it is pretty clear that the rise of kite-surfing, invented in the late 1990s, is slowly killing wind-surfing.

Carbon out, carbon in

What will happen to farm yields in a higher CO2 world?

Reputation, weather and climate

Dodgy long term forecasts spoil the reputations of good short-term forecasters

Punctured pessimists

England should no longer exist by now, according to Paul Ehrlich

Fox News has dug up some remarkable botched predictions about the environment. Most are familar but three were new to me:

Reasons to be cheerful

he outlooks is as good as it has ever been for people and their planet

Happy New Year.

I mean it. 2011 will see horrible things, no doubt, but it will also see a continuing incremental reduction in poverty, hunger, illness and suffering, plus a continuing incremental rise in most measures of human and planetary wellbeing.

Here's a fine blast of optimism from John Tierney in the New York Times. He took a bet with a peak-oiler and won hands down.

New cousins

A new species of Pleistocene Central Asian hominin that left some DNA behind in Melanesians

How new words and new genes are coined

In the evolution of a language, the same principles apply to DNA as to English

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, with added links:

Don't look for the soul in the language of DNA

Back in the genomic bronze age-the 1990s-scientists used to think that there would prove to be lots of unique human genes found in no other animal. They assumed that different species would have many different genes. One of the big shocks of sequencing genomes was not just the humiliating news that human beings have the same number of genes as a mouse, but that we have the same genes, give or take a handful.

Cancer, chemicals, Carson and smoking

Rachel Carson, in her hugely influential book Silent Spring, wrote that she expected an epidemic of cancer caused by chemicals in the environment, especially DDT, indeed she thought it had already begun in the early 1960s:

``No longer are exposures to dangerous chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of everyone-even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in malignant disease.

The increase itself is no mere matter of subjective impressions. The monthly report of the Office of Vital Statistics for July 1959 states that malignant growths, including those of the lymphatic and blood-forming tissues, accounted for 15 per cent of the deaths in 1958 compared with only 4 per cent in 1900. Judging by the present incidence of the disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that 45,000,000 Americans now living will eventually develop cancer. This means that malignant disease will strike two out of three families. The situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing. A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease. So serious has this situation become that Boston has established the first hospital in the United States devoted exclusively to the treatment of children with cancer. Twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one and fourteen are caused by cancer. Large numbers of malignant tumors are discovered clinically in children under the age of five, but it is an even grimmer fact that significant numbers of such growths are present at or before birth. Dr. W. C. Hueper of the National Cancer Institute, a foremost authority on environmental cancer, has suggested that congenital cancers and cancers in infants may be related to the action of cancer-producing agents to which the mother has been exposed during pregnancy and which penetrate the placenta to act on the rapidly developing fetal tissues.''

The strange lack of limits to growth

Why do people have more resources when there are more of them?

Delingpole on Huhne

Britain tries to reverse the industrial revolution

Miller on cognitive behavioral therapy

To cheer people up tell them things are OK

Mental time travel

The longer your past, the longer your future

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about how the human brain deals with the future. Here it is with added links.

I recently came across the phrase "remembering the future." Rather than some empty poetic paradox, it appeared in an article about a neuroscientific experiment that tested a hypothesis of Karl Friston of University College, London, that the brain is more active when it is surprised.

In the study, volunteers watched patterns of moving dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot would appear out of step. Although there was the same number of dots, the visual part of the subjects' brains was more active when the dots broke step. According to Arjen Alink of the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who did the experiment, the brains were predicting what would happen next and having to work harder when their predictions failed. They were "remembering the future."

Worstall on Stern

Economics for environmentalsist in one short volume

Bishop Hill has a review of Tim Worstall's book Chasing Rainbows, which reminds me that I meant to write about this book. I wrote a cover quote for it that described it `fearless, fresh, forensic and funny'.

What is particularly clever about the book is the way that Worstall makes economic theory so digestible, even delicious. He refutes the dreary cliche so popular among environmentalists that economics just `does not get' the environment (by which they usually mean that they would like to do the equivalent of repeal the laws of gravity and make things to happen even if they make no sense for people: like getting people to give up cheap forms of energy to take up expensive ones). Quite the reverse is true: environmentalists all too often just don't get what economists are trying to tell them.

I especially liked this little section which so neatly eviscerates the Stern Report:

The asymmetry effect

Will exagerated claims about ocean acidification provoke responses, or only sceptical ones?

Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty

Why trade restriction lowers everybody's living standards

(picture from Eden's Path)

More on whether the weather is climate

The Economist turns to astrology

Here's a letter I sent to the editor of The Economist:


Last winter, we were told by scientists that it was `stupid' to take the cold weather as evidence against global warming. Yet this winter you are quite happy to speculate, entirely against the consensus view, that the cold weather is evidence for global warming (`A Cold Warming', Dec 4th). In support of this fancy, you cite `some' evidence that summer heat `may' induce shifts in atmospheric circulation that `might' encourage seasonal patterns that would `probably' mean more cold winters in Britain. Spare us the astrology, please.

More on shale gas

The environmental cost of NOT using a new fuel

There is a big new report on shale gas from the No Hot Air website. It is far too expensive for me, but here is a summary of what it supposedly concludes:

The key issue going forward for natural gas is not managing supply, but creating demand.

The US success in shale gas technology can be replicated in multiple locations world-wide.

Bottom-up education

How to guide children to use the internet in groups to educate themselves

My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is turning education upside down with the help of the internet:

Whether it's weather or climate that matters

Yes, cold weather is just weather. But that's the point.

Sucking the oxygen from the room

Has the climate change obsession harmed conservation?

For some time now I have been aware of environmentalists who dislike the way their agendas have been hijacked by climate change. The orthodox view is that climate change is raising the profile of all environmental issues, but is it?

Can it really be easier to raise money for a wildlife conservation project in Madagascar or Galapagos when everybody is saying that the major threat is not habitat loss or invasive species, but slow warming?

Can it really be helpful for bird conservation when green groups take money from wind companies which kill golden eagles?

Arm-wrestling with Bill Gates

A debate in the Wall Street Journal

The coming dash for gas

Britain is burying its head in the sand about a new technology that is good for the environment

Update: I have misled the reader about the quantity of neodymium in a wind turbine magnet. The magnet is not pure neodymium, but an alloy of Nd, iron and Boron. So there's a lot less than 2.5 tonnes of Nd itself in a 2.5MW turbine magnet. There's still plenty of it, though. Hat tip Tim Worstall.

2nd Update: I am told 270kg of Nd per megawatt is about right, though it will vary with different kinds of magnet. That means about 675kg of Nd in a 2.5MW turbine. Hat tip Alan Bates.

Ecosystems are dynamic

A response from scientists on ocean acidifciation

We are getting somewhere. There is a long response to my Times article from ocean acidification scientists here. This makes me rather happy. The response confirms the accuracy of my main points. I have sent the following response to Nature's website, which carried a report on this matter:

I am glad to have my main point confirmed by the reply: that there is in fact no evidence for net biological harm likely as a result of realistic changes in ocean pH. This is a huge and welcome change from the exaggerated rhetoric that has been used on this topic.

The reply also confirms the accuracy of virtually all of my factual assertions about the likely change in pH, the natural variation in pH and other issues, including the involvement of a Greenpeace ship in a research project. Only my interpretation is challenged.

Whether wild weather causes innovation

Neither Neanderthals nor a volatile climate caused innovation 42,000 years ago

On his blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien Riel-Salvatore discusses his recent paper about Neanderthals and innovation:

I'm quoted [in the press release] as saying, among other things, that this study helps 'rehabilitate' Neanderthals by showing that they were able to develop some of the accoutrements of behavioral modernity independent of any contact with modern humans. While I've caught a bit of flak from some friends and colleagues for that turn of phrase, I stand by my statement -this study helps to cast Neanderthals in a much more positive light than they have been for a long while now.

In my book, I argue that Neanderthals --though highly intelligent -- did not show a tendency to innovate, because they did not show a tendency to exchange (their artefacts never come from far away), and this kept their toolkit much the same till the end. The discovery of Neanderthals innovating would therefore be a blow to my argument.

Human and natural fertility

Mankind enhances natural productivity as well as eats it

I have just found at Spiked Online Brendan O'Neill's superb recent essay on whether the earth is finite, and I heartily recommend it. Here's a sample:

Over the past 200 years, Malthusians have tended to look at people as simply the users-up of scarce resources. They have tended to view nature as the producer of things and mankind as the consumer of things. And their view of people as little more than consumers - almost as parasites - inevitably leads to them seeing human beings as the cause of every modern ill, and therefore reducing the number of human beings as the solution to every modern ill. Their focus on finiteness means they conceive of humanity as a kind of bovine force, hoovering up everything that it comes across.

I read this while sitting in a hotel room at San Francisco airport. Huge jets queue for take off in full view of my window. I am in the middle of a great conurbation. But between me and the jets lies a stretch of water, an arm of the Bay itself. And the water is a bird watcher's paradise. There are rafts of ducks such as buffleheads and wigeon. There are pelicans, grebes and two speces of gull. Along the shore there are great white and little egrets, willets, whimbrels, grey plovers, stints, dowitchers, avocets, yellow-legs and tight flocks of sandpipers. Sea lions cruise a litle further out, and an osprey has just plunged into the water after a fish.

On the meaning of the word optimism

This is not the best of all possible worlds

Here is my latest Wall Street Journal column. It led me into the etymology of the word `optimism' and the realisation that at first it meant almost the opposite of what we now mean by it, namely that the world was at its `optimum' and could not improve.

A Haitian who survived the January earthquake and has so far escaped cholera recently told a reporter that this month's Hurricane Tomas wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, "thank God." I know it's often just a verbal tic, but it has always struck me as odd that people who survive natural disasters thank God for saving them but rarely blame Him for the disaster.

It has been quite a decade for natural disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Burma's cyclone, Pakistan's floods, China's quake. Only once to my knowledge has there been much media debate about whether these disasters were "acts of God"-after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, perhaps because it happened on the day after Christmas. In any case, I always felt the phrase applied better to 9/11, considering the motivation of the terrorists.

PETM theory

Tropical forests became more diverse during the warm episode of 55m years ago.

A new paper in Science casts further doubt on the usefulness of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a warning of what we face from man-made carbon emissions. Tropical rain forests became more diverse, not less, during the warm spell.

The paleontologist who made this discovery told Science News:

"We were expecting to find rapid extinction, a total change in the forest," says study leader Carlos Jaramillo, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama. "What we found was just the opposite - a very fast addition of many new species, and a huge spike in the diversity of tropical plants."

Let a thousand flowers bloom

Only possible in a market economy

Don Boudreaux has a lovely essay in the Christian Science Monitor (interest declaration: he mentions my book) in which he makes the point people often miss about markets, that they encourage diversity rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:

Contrast the multitude of different market-generated and voluntarily adopted ideas with the ideas of progressives - for example, progressives' idea thatgovernment must regulate the fatcontent of foods.

Each of us can decide how much we value, say,juicy burgersand double-dark chocolate ice cream compared to how much we value a trim waistline and longer life expectancy. And each of us values these benefits differently. The dietary choices that I make for myself are right for me, but I cannot know if they are right for anyone else. Progressives, in contrast, falsely assume there's a single correct metric, for the whole country, that determines for everyone how to trade off the satisfaction of eatingtasty but fatty foodsfor the benefit of being healthier.

David MacKay's letter

Here is the letter that David MacKay sent me following my article in The Times and to which I replied.

(I have gone to weblinks for his charts and in one case come up with a slightly different version -- the sea ice graph I could not find the exact one he included so I have found another from the same source which has more years on it than his version, but it's the same data and the same source.) Update: all graphs now correct!

Victory on acidification!

Three fellows of the Royal Society concede my arguments

There is a hilarious letter in today's Times from three FRS professors about my recent artilce on ocean acidification.

Despite conceding the factual truth of my article in detail, they tell me to brush up on chemistry then give no examples of me getting anything wrong.

They concede my point that any shift of acidity will be within natural ranges. Thanks. But say it could be much larger `in the future'. No numbers, note. They mean in several centuries.

The best shot?

Are Arctic ice and the PETM really the best arguments for dangerous climate change?

UPDATE: David MacKay's letter is now up in a separate post here

Some weeks ago I wrote an article for The Times about why I no longer find persuasive the IPCC's arguments that today's climate change is unprecedented, fast and dangerous.

Sinners that repent

Some greens have seen the light on nuclear power and GM food. It's a start.

Update: I'd like to add one thing to the story below. Stewart Brand, who I know and admire, played a prominent part in the Channel 4 film. He's not a `convert' to these views. He has always been strongly pro-GM food and mildly pro-nuclear. So my comments here were not aimed at him.

Last night saw a TV programme in the UK called What the Green Movement Got Wrong, in which various greens admitted that they had done terrible harm by opposing nuclear power and GM food and indoor DDT. It was a pretty good programme, especially on Chernobyl.

Acid oceans and acid rain

Learning lessons from the 1980s

I have an article in The Times today (behind a paywall) on ocean acidification. Here's the gist:

Today in Beijing an alliance of scientists called Oceans United will present the United Nations with a request for $5 billion a year to be spent on monitoring the oceans. High among their concerns is ocean acidification, which `could make it harder for animals such as lobsters, crabs, shellfish, coral or plankton to build protective shells'.

As opinion polls reveal that global warming is losing traction on the public imagination, environmental pressure groups have been cranking the engine on this `other carbon dioxide problem'. `Time is running out' wrote two activists in Scientific American in August, `to limit acidification before it irreparably harms the food chain on which the world's oceans - and people - depend.'

Sauce for the goose

Greens who like to make unsubstantiated claims then demand the prosecution of others for the same offence

I have just sent this letter to the Guardian:

In response to Donald Brown's call for climate scepticism to be classified as a crime against humanity (1st November),

in which he said `We may not have a word for this type of crime yet, but the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity':

The tyranny of causation

Here (a bit late) is my latest Wall Street Journal column, on epigenetic inheritance

In the debate over whether our fates as individuals are ruled by nature or nurture-that is, by innate qualities or personal experience-one of the most baffling features is the way the nurture advocates manage to cast themselves as the great foes of determinism. "Genes don't determine who we are," they insist-all the while positing that environmental causes often do. Remember how some Freudians tried to blame autism, schizophrenia and even homosexuality on the way parents treated their children? True, they claimed these effects were treatable, but so are many genetic problems. I wear glasses to correct a partly genetic tendency to myopia.

Nor has environmental determinism escaped moral stain. When Soviet agriculture was forced to obey crank theories that environmental conditioning rather than breeding could determine the frost-resistance of wheat-not coincidentally echoing the notion that human nature could be remade by communism-the result was famine.

Circular reasoning and species extinction

Stephen Budiansky diagnoses a logical flaw

Over at LIberal Curmudgeon, Steve Budiansky has a good insight into a subject he knows well, ever since writing the book Nature's Keepers: claims about species extinction.

The whole science behind the extinction crisis is riddled withcircular reasoning, but this is an especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it. (The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened on the IUCNRed Listwere presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat loss)

Like Steve, I care about extinctions. In my youth I worked on three different projects to try to diagnose and arrest the decline of rare birds in the Indian subcontinent. But like me he fears that mega-political statements and exaggerated claims will only do that cause harm:

Plankton not bothered so why are we?

Yet another study debunks the ocean acidification scare

Further evidence that ocean acidification is a non-event, scientifically, even while being a big event for scientists financially:

Thus, both of the investigated coastal plankton communities were unaffected by twenty-first century expected changes in pH and free CO2. This may be explained by the large seasonal, and even daily, changes in pH seen in productive marine ecosystems, and the corresponding need for algae to be pH-tolerant.


Rare earths versus the Earth

Another environmental cost of wind turbines

Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject, rare earths.

Rare-earth minerals are the 15 elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table -- known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights; lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there simply isn't a viable substitute.

In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.

A puzzle

An acrostic challenge

Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve Budiansky).

Quis custodiet?

How to regulate the psychology of regulators

My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is about the psychology of bureaucracy. just as we need to understand the human proclivities that give rise to booms and busts in markets, so we need to understand the human proclivities that motivate officials. Here are five identified by Slavisa Tasic, starting with `illusions of competence':

Psychologists have shown that we systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr. Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that they knew with confidence things that were false.

The issue of action bias is better known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem worse.

The difference between reciprocity and exchange

Plus other matters aired on the radio

Here's anhour long conversationI did on Econtalk with economist and novelist Russ Roberts about trade, prosperity and Adam Smith. It includes a discussion of why animals can manage reciprocity but not, apparently, exchange.

Refugee ideas

Political plurality allows innovations to flourish

My latest Wall Street Journal column, Triumph of the Idea Smugglers, argues that from time to time in history good ideas need rescuing from bad regimes. If Thales of Miletus had not infected Greece with rationalism after travelling in Egypt, and if 1700 years later, Leonardo Fibonacci had not infected Italy with Hindu numerals after growing up in what is now Algeria -- then these ideas might not have flourished.

The secret of human progress is and always has been to keep ideas moving, both so that they meet and mate with new ideas and so that they escape suppression at home. As the philosopher David Hume was the first to observe, China suffers from a geographic disadvantage in this respect: It is too easy to unify. When disunited it grows rich and innovative. But time and again emperors, from the Ming to the Maoist, have been able to establish tyrannical centralized rule and shut down trade, diversity and experiment.

Europe, with its centrifugal rivers, its peninsulas and mountain ranges, is very hard to unify by conquest. Ask Constantine, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler. So European states could harbor commercial, intellectual and religious refugees from each other, keeping flames alive. The history of technology is littered with examples of Europeans who fled from one jurisdiction to another to a find a more congenial or generous ruler: Columbus, Gutenberg, Voltaire, Einstein.

Technology 1 Therapy 0 in Chile

Market innovation helped the miners; counselling was counter-productive

Today I read two contrasting articles about the wonderful rescue of the Chilean miners that I strongly recommend, even though both are a few days old.

The first, by Brendan O'Neill, in Spiked (hat tip: Frank Stott), reveals the degree to which the miners helped themselves to cope by defying the psychological experts 700 metres above them.

The inconvenient truth is that the 33 miners survived underground not as a result of psychological advice and intervention but by sometimes rebellingagainst the psychologists who kept a watchful eye on their every move. The real story of the Chilean miners, for anyone who cares to look, is that the interventions of the various wings of the trauma industry often make things worse rather than better, and people are mostly happier and healthier without them.

The cat of liberty is out of the hierarchical bag

Is modern growth a materialist or an ideological achievement?

Continuing the debate about the industrial revolution with Deirdre McCloskey

Here's her reply to me

...We agree at least that innovation is the key. That's a very, very important agreement. Joel Mokyr, Jack Goldstone, and our own Greg Clark join Matt Ridley, Robert Allen, and me in affirming it. It sets us Innovators off from most economists and historians, who are Accumulators. We say that the modern world got rich by (at a minimum) 1500% percent compared with 1800 not, as the sadly mistaken Accumulators say, because of capital accumulation, or exploitation of the third world, or the expansion of foreign trade. The world got rich by inventing cheap steel, electric lights, marine insurance, reinforced concrete, coffee shops, saw mills, newspapers, automatic looms, cheap paper, modern universities, the transistor, cheap porcelain, corporations, rolling mills, liberation for women, railways.

The three-dimensional photocopier

What characteristics would extraterrestrial life have?

Here's a video of a discussion I had with Richard Dawkins about `life' back in June: extra-terrestrial life, artificial life and synthetic life.

Why did the industrial revolution happen?

Or rather, why did it not peter out?

At Cato Unbound, there is a set of essays on the subject in response to Deirdre McCloskey, one of which is by me, others by Greg Clark and Jonathan Feinstein.

I champion the theory that coal was crucial, because it showed increasing rather than diminshing returns (the more people mined, the cheaper it got) and it amplified productivity and commerce. But there is more to the story than that.

Where are the genes?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

On the failed promise of genomics.

Is it because common ailments are caused by many different rare genetic variants?

Collateral beneficence

GM crops benefit non-GM crops nearby

Do you remember how, back in the days when genetically modified crops were as vilifed as climate sceptics were until recently, one of the arguments deployed against them was that they would `contaminate' neighbouring farms with their genetically modified pollen? This was one justification for a total ban, as there still is in Britain, rather than a policy of live and let live.

Now comes evidence of a different kind of collateral contamination by GM crops. Turns out GM maize contaminates neighbouring farms with extra profits. The fact that farmers are growing insect-resistant GM crops raises yields for those who are growing conventional maize, because it reduces the number of pests that are about.

Predicted nightmares almost never come true

Remember how vilifed were the IVF pioneers

Robin Marantz Henig hits the nail on the head in the New York Times today:

The history of in vitro fertilization demonstrates not only how easily the public will accept new technology once it's demonstrated to be safe, but also that the nightmares predicted during its development almost never come true. This is a lesson to keep in mind as we debate whether to pursue other promising yet controversial medical advances, from genetic engineering to human cloning.

The Nobel prize for Robert Edwards is long overdue. It should not be forgotten what a gauntlet he and Patrick Steptoe had to run when they pioneered IVF. Here's a taste, from an article in The Times in 2003:

Connecting human islands

Pacific fishing technology and the catallaxy

My latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

An odd thing about people, compared with other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the world's income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among the most densely populated.

By contrast, it's a fair bet that if you took a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not, you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms, they often get richer.


An advert that advocates blowing up people who disagree with you


This video was made by an organisation funded partly by the UK taxpayer.

Science in action

Maurice Wilkins's letters to Francis Crick turn up

Francis Crick's letters from the 1950s, supposedly thrown away by `an over-zealous secretary', have come to light in Sydney Brenner's papers. Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski found them when they went through the Brenner archive. The secretary is exonerated. The Crick Brenner office (they shared a room) was moved twice in the early 1960s.

As one of Crick's biographers I have done some interviews, for example with the LA Times.

My main reaction is that this is a thrilling discovery that adds lots of colour and enriches the story but does not rewrite history in any fundamental way. Not that I have read all the letters yet.

Are cattle an endangered species?

Lists of threatened species include things you can buy cheaply online for the garden.

There is a big push on to draw attention to species extinction in the run up to a Biodiversity Jamboree in Japan.

But something struck me as odd as I listened to the radio this morning. There was a lot of talk of `extinctions' of thousands of plants, as turned up by a new report from Kew Gardens. When I opened the newspapers (online), I found that actually the report was not about extinctions, but about threats of extinction. Then I looked at the list cited by the Times and Guardian. Right there at the top:

Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) - critically endangered

Peculiar human sex differences

I am now writing a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal called Mind and Matter. Here's the first one.

Recently, the psychologist David Buss's team at the University of Texas at Austin reported that men, when looking for one-night stands, check out women's bodies. Or as they put it, "men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts, but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating contexts."

Like many results in evolutionary psychology, this may seem blindingly obvious, but that does not stop it from being controversial. Earlier this month a neuroscientist in Britain, Gina Rippon, lambasted what she called the "neurohype" about sex differences: "There may be some very small differences between the genders, but the similarities are far, far greater."

Recycling clothes and houses

A neat insight from Don Boudreaux

From Cafe Hayek comes this:

When materials are worth recycling, markets for their reuse naturally arise. For materials with no natural markets for their reuse, the benefits of recycling are less than its costs - and, therefore, government efforts to promote such recycling waste resources.

Everyday experience should teach us this fact. The benefits of recycling clothing, for example, are large enough to prompt us to buy costly clothes-recycling machines that we routinely use to recycle for tomorrow the clothes we wear today. We call these machines "washers and dryers." And when American families no longer want their clothing, organizations such as Goodwill come by to gather the discarded garments to recycle them for use by poor people.

How to be open-minded without your brains falling out

The limits of scepticism

The brilliant philosophical writer (and my old friend) Anthony Gottlieb has been ruminating on whether science should be sceptical about itself.

There is no full-blown logical paradox here. If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism-all of whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be-they understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it helps to keep quiet about how often you are wrong.

Very true. On scientific questions where I am orthodox (eg, alternative medicine, evolution), I notice that the heretics use precisely the same sorts of arguments as I do in those fields where I am a sceptic (eg, climate projections, crop circles). There seems to be no easy answer to the problem: when should you go for a heresy.

Monbiot caught out

The perished credibility of George

Update: George Monbiot has made it clear that he did not ask for the deletions of comments referred to below, but that the Guardian moderators made the deletions for legal reasons and without his knowledge. But he still fails to take the opportunity to discuss the evidence that Williams and Niggurath produce.

George Monbiot is in trouble. He has already had to make an apology for his mistakes in an attack on Richard North.

He's swinging like a weathervane on issues like vegetarianism and feed-in tariffs.

Crowd accelerated innovation

Chris Anderson's brilliant talk at TED Global is now on the web.

Among the take-home messages:

- that innovation is accelerating thanks to the ability to compare and combine. Dance is a great example.

Hope springs in Wells

Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not article itself) this morning to publicise a talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a church. Will I get to use the pulpit?

``If you write a book saying the world is getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric. But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy future for people and their planet.

Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.

A paradox that is no

How come the richer we get the less we die?

Ben Pile at Climate Resistance has a nice essay on the `environmentalist's paradox'. This is the superficially puzzling -- and to many greens, infuriating -- fact that people keep on getting healthier and wealthier when really they should, in all decency, be suffering terribly because of the deterioration of the earth's ecosystems.

Pile's starting point is a new paper that grapples wih the paradox. It puts forward four explanations

(1) We have measured well-being incorrectly;

Budiansky and local food

Nothing is more vulnerable than self-reliance'

Stephen Budiansky's two essays on the `locavore' movement, one in the New York Times and one on his blog, have received quite a bit of attention already. They are remarkably fine rants not least because Steve (an old friend) is not some pontificator. He actually grows a lots of his own food on his small farm in Virginia. He knows what he is talking about. And yet, like me, he concludes that

Twice, while being interviewed about my book I have been told by the interviewer that it is a bad thing that I can buy green beans from Africa `because the food should be kept in Africa to feed people there'. The sheer ignorance of this statement, let alone its patronising tone, left me open-mouthed on both occasions. Think how many calories of wheat an African bean exporter can afford to buy for the price he receives for the few calories in his beans. He is growing the most valuable crop he can so that he can afford to import things of greater value to him than surplus beans.

Distant food is efficient, sustainable, safe and moral.

More for less

Progress in portable music

Russ Roberts, over at Cafe Hayek, has this lovely hymn to progress:

In 1979,Sony introduced the Walkman, the first portable music player. It weighed 14 ounces and cost $200. It could play a cassette that could hold about 90 minutes of music. It was a little bigger than a cassette. It was pretty ugly.

A new nano from Apple was announced yesterday. It weighs less than an ounce. The 8GB model is $149. It holds about 60 hours of music. It is smaller than a matchbook. It is very beautiful.

Intolerance breeds intolerance

The polarisation of environmental science

Steve Budiansky has a good piece at his Liberal Curmudgeon blog. He argues -- and I agree -- that heavy handed legal attacks on climate scientists, like Attorney general Ken Cucinelli's in Virginia, are reprehensible, but that to some extent environmental scientists are reaping what they have sown, for example in their reaction to Bjorn Lomborg's 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist:

Environmental scientists responded with a determination to stamp out this heresy that would have done Torquemada or Khomeini proud. A dozen scientists served Cambridge University Press with a demand that it cease printing the book, fire the editor who oversaw it, and "convene a tribunal" to investigate the book's "errors." Nature ran a truly egregious review by the scientists Stuart Pimm and Jeffrey Harvey attributing to Lomborg ridiculous statements that he never even remotely made in the book or anywhere else. And Pimm and Harvey along with other members of the environmental goon squad lodged a complaint with the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty - a legal body of the state - alleging that Lomborg had committed "scientific misconduct" for having reached conclusions that Pimm and Harvey did not like.

Who's the establishment now?

How climate converted the greens to the argument from authority

Walter Russell Mead has a powerful essay in the American Interest online about how the environmental movement suddenly turned into the establishment. Have you noticed the irony of being told to shut up and trust the experts by the likes of Greenpeace? Nothing is quite so amusing about the modern environmental movement as its sudden volte-face on the argument from authority: from `don't believe the experts' to `do as you are told'.

I suppose one should not be surprised. Every movement, from Christianity to Bolshevism, had the same transformation. How the church went from being a radical insurgent organization that gave a voice to the poor to one that insisted on papal infallibility without a backward glance always struck me as entertaining.

Mead argues that the entire environmental movement was founded on not trusting experts:

Reform the IPCC for the sake of science

A damning official report on the IPCC

Update: Links added to sources

From today's Times, my op-ed piece.

This month, after a three-year investigation, Harvard University suspended a prominent professor of psychology for scandalously overinterpreting videos of monkey behaviour. The incident has sent shock waves through science because it suggests that a body of data is unreliable. The professor, Marc Hauser, is now a pariah in his own field and his papers have been withdrawn. But the implications for society are not great - no policy had been based on his research.

The reactionary left

When progressives became pessimists

Excellent essay in City Journal by Fred Siegel on how liberal progressives became nostalgic reactionaries when they discovered environmental pessimism in the 1970s:

Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism's path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.

I especially enjoyed his quotation from my late colleague Norman Macrae:

Irrational pessimism about population

pologists for China's one-child policy make bizarre economic arguments

My son, aged 16, is cleverer than me and knows more about economic theory, which interests him. He has his own views on the world. So I invited him to write a blog post on a topic of his choosing. Here it is:

by Matthew Ridley

Janice Turner provided an amusing dose of irrational pessimism in TheTimes on 21 August (behind a paywall) with an argument for population control. Talking of China's efforts to control population, she says that:

John Gray's confusion

A review that misunderstands cultural evolution

I have sent the following letter to the New Statesman

Dear Sir,

John Gray, in his review of my book The Rational Optimist accuses me of being an apologist for social Darwinism. This vile accusation could not be farther from the truth. I have resolutely criticised both eugenics and social Darwinism in several of my books. I have consistently argued that both policies are morally wrong, politically authoritarian and practically foolish. In my new book I make a wholly different and more interesting argument, namely that if evolution occurs among ideas, then it is ideas, not people, that struggle, compete and die. That is to say, culture changes by the mutation and selective survival of tools and rules without people suffering, indeed while people themselves prosper. This is precisely the opposite of social Darwinism in the sense that it is an evolutionary process that enables the least fit people to thrive as much as the fittest.

Why health panics are so often wrong

Antibiotics, flu and evolution

Let nobody accuse professional healthcare officials of being unproductive. They diligently produce what they are good at producing -- dire warnings of disaster.

There have been Ebola virus, Lassa fever, swine flu, bird flu, swine flu again, SARS, the human form of mad cow disease, and many more such scares. Every single one proved exaggerated -- greatly, vastly so.

To add insult to injury, when each scare fails to materialise, officials close ranks and congratulate themselves on averting it. The latest example is Britain's insulting official review of the swine flu fiasco, as described by Michael Fitzpatrick in Spiked:

Prosperity is the friend of wildlife

Rich Idaho looks after biodiversity better than poor North Korea

I am on holiday in the Idaho Rockies, in a house on the edge of what is in winter a fancy ski resort, the streets of which are clogged with sports cars, massive SUVs and even the odd Hummer. The shops offer all the extravagances a pampered plutocrat needs: from pet grooming to art galleries. Sent to buy bagels, I was faced with a bewildering ten different kinds.

Sounds like I am complaining? Read on.

From the patio of our house can be seen a constant procession of wonderful (and remarkably tame) birds, attracted by the effect of the the suburb's sprinklers in the usually dry landscape. Squirrels come to the trees; garter snakes to the wall; butterflies to the flowers. In the crystal stream at the bottom of the hill, wild rainbow trout rise to caddis flies and dippers, martins and sandpipers snack on huge stoneflies. In the woods along the valley are moose droppings and signs of the occasional black bear.

Intergalactic idea sex

Rational optimism for the universe

In The Rational Optimist, I argue that the human technological and economic take-off derives from the invention of exchange and specialisation some time before 100,000 years ago. When people began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than individual brains. Cumulative technology could begin to embody this collective intelligence.

Of course, I did not invent this idea. In keeping with the theory, I merely put together the ideas of others, notably those of Joe Henrich (collective intelligence), Rob Boyd (cumulative culture), Paul Romer (combinatorial ideas), Haim Ofek (the invention of exchange) and many others.

There was also the important thought that came from Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas, namely that temporary `outbreaks' of new technology in Paleolithic Africa probably have a demographic explanation. That is, when population density rose, it resulted in a spurt of innovation; when population density fell, it resulted in technological regress (as happened in Tasmania when it was isolated). Technology was sophisticated, in other words, in proportion to the number of people networked by exchange to sustain and develop it.

The oil runs out

That damned elusive slick

I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing: oil.

A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and politicians.

But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar ball in their reports.

Collaboration or growth

Who thinks they are in conflict?

Through the letterbox drops a begging letter from the head of a university. Fair enough. The needy beg. The first sentence reads as follows.

Today, the defining struggle in the world is between relentless growth and the potential for collaboration.

This is very odd in all sorts of ways.

German language interview

`Optimisten brauchen diesen Text nicht zu lesen. Pessimisten sollten ihn auswendig lernen.'

German language interview just published in Das Magazin, based in Zurich. It calls me `notorisch zuversichtlichen'.

Includes this picture of the author looking pessmistic because about to be eaten by sabre-toothed cat, and because he has his head by the rear end of a monkey.

No golden age of air travel

Whenever somebody gets nostalgic about the past, I get suspicious. In the eigth century BC, Hesiod was already moaning about how things aint like they used to be.

The Wall Street Journal has a great article about how nostalgic people get for the way air travel used to be in the 1950s -- with more leg room, less hassle and more romance.

Piffle. Compard with today, it was expensive, dangerous and slow:

The true price of power

I have long known that there is nothing remotely `green' about putting wind farms all over the countryside, with their eagle-slicing, bat-popping, subsidy-eating, rare-earth-demanding, steel-rich, intermittent-output characteristics. But until I read Robert Bryce's superb and sober new book Power Hungry, I had not realised just how dreadfully bad for the environment nearly all renewable energy is.

Bryce calculates that one Texas nuclear plant generates about 56 watts per square metre. This compares with 53 for gas turbines, 1.2 for wind, 6.7 for solar or 0.05 for corn ethanol. Sorry, but what is so green about using 45 times as much land - and ten times as much steel - to produce the same amount of power? It does not surprise me that those with vested interest in renewables close their minds to this, but it genuinely baffles me that other people don't get it.

I've dealt with bird killing elsewhere, but Bryce contrasts the prosecution of Exxon for killing 85 birds in uncovered tanks with the fact that:

Homo stramineus

On the use of straw men in scientific arguments

I found this on John Hawks's anthropology blog. He's writing about the sometimes heated debate over whether Homo floresiensis is a species or a deformity:

What I notice is that when I write about this, I have to correct a lot of false claims about what the anti-floresiensis scientists have said. Why do I so rarely have to correct false claims about what the pro-floresiensis scientists say? This is a generalization, but I've written enough about this to have a good impression. The media reports skeptical arguments very poorly. I think it's a systematic problem with science writing.

With the H. floresiensis issue, the science writers have been abetted by some careless scholars. A reporter may quote a pro-floresiensis scientist who says his critics believe something totally nonsensical, and they report that uncritically. This is another example of the same. I challenge anybody to find an anti-floresiensis scholar who has written that "nature moves inexorably towards bigger brains".

Daniel Ben-Ami on pessimist puritans

Scepticism about economic growth is a reactionary, not a radical philosophy

Daniel Ben-Ami's new book `Ferraris For All', published by the Policy Press, is a great read. Ben-Ami's point is to defend the idea of economic development against the `growth sceptics' who have emerged in various blue, green and red guises recently.

What he does especially well is to point out how conservative, how elitist and anti-aspirational, so many of the critics of economic growth are. In a fascinating chapter he explores the way in which the Left has abandoned the idea of progress, and turned conservative:

Nowadays it has reached the stage where what passes for radical thinking is typically imbued with deep social pessimism and hostility to economic growth. Paradoxically, to the extent that any current is associated with advocating prosperity, it is often the free market Right.

Natural resilience

What happens after oil spills

I have written an op-ed article in The Times today. It's behind a paywall, but here's my last draft before editing by the newspaper, together with links.

So long as the cap holds, and assuming that is the end of it, the Deepwater Horizon spill (up to 600,000 tonnes in total) will now take its place in the oil spill hall of shame. BP's cavalier incompetence has made this probably the worst oil-spill year since 1979, the year that saw not only the previous worst rig spill - the Ixtoc 1 platform off Mexico - but also the worst tanker spill, a collision of two supertankers off Trinidad.

All this, just when things were going so well in the oil-spill business. The number and collective size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades, from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a drop of more than 90%.

The Rational Optimist live on stage

Matt's TEDGlobal talk in Oxford

My TED talk is now live online.

At TEDGlobal 2010, author Matt Ridley shows how, throughout history, the engine of human progress has beenthe meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas. It's not important how clever individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the collective brain is.

Mountains and molehills

Today at TED Global in Oxford, among other great talks, I was blown away by this graph, shown by David McCandless.

The burden of proof

Remember who needs to persuade who on climate change

I have just one comment on the Climategate reports and that is this.

People who ask the world to spend $45 trillion on a project are surely under an obligation to show their raw data and their workings. If instead, they

publish only `adjusted data' rather than raw data,

Go Dutch

Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup

Ten reasons I want the Netherlands to win the World Cup

1. More than almost any nation since the Phoenicians, the Dutch traded rather than plundered their way to prosperity in their Golden Age.

2. They were cheated out of winning (hosting?) the industrial revolution by invasions and attacks from jealous neighbours, especially Louis XIV.

In the Sun

Rational Optimism reaches the tabloids

I am in today's Sun newspaper. Fully clothed.

WHEN I was growing up in the 1970s we were warned the ice age was returning, the population explosion was unstoppable and we'd all be poisoned by chemicals in the environment.

None of these things happened.

Green greed

Green politicking can do real harm

Tim Worstall has a superb rebuke to the idiotic argument that greedy speculation, rather than greenie politicking, was the real cause of the high food prices, hunger and food riots of 2008:

In short, futures allow speculation upon the future: which is why we have them, for speculation upon the future allows us to sidestep the very things which we do not desire to happen in that future.

Now, of course, you could design an alternative method of doing this. The wise, omniscient and altruistic politicians and bureaucrats could send a fax to all farmers telling them to plant more. Signs could appear in every breadshop telling us all to eat our crusts.

Down with Doom

Where are the pressure groups for good news?

have written a blog at the Huffington Post called Down with Doom. Here's an extract:

I now see at firsthand how I avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news? They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser. Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists' predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years. He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning point'.

Testing past consensi

Previous declarations of scientific consensus have often proved wrong

Update: apologies for formatting problems in a previous version of this blog post.

Last week a study claimed that 97-98 percent of the most published climate scientists agree with the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is happening.

Well, duh. Of course they would: it's their livelihood. Anyway, so do I. So do most `sceptics': they just argue about how much and through what means. You can believe in man-made carbon dioxide causing man-made climate change but not in net positive feedbacks so you think the change will be mild, slow, hard to discern among natural changes and far less likely to cause harm than carbon-rationing policies: that's still within the range of possibilities of the IPCC consensus.


A well timed lightning bolt

I was giving a talk in Bozeman, Montana, last night at an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary ofPERC, a think tank that encourages private approaches to wildlife conservation and free-market environmental solutions.

Just as I uttered the words "of course, things will still go wrong", there was a huge thunderclap, the lights went out and the slide projector died.

Common ancestors

Ardipithecus is too interesting to fight over

I spent an afternoon this week getting a personal tour of a cast of the skeleton of Ardipithecus from Tim White, the leader of the team that decsribed it. Call me a nerd, but I found it spine-tingling to hold in my hands the skull of a 4.4.million year old creature that might be very close to my own ancestor.

But it was the details that stole the show. The lack of sharpening on the rear of the canines (unlike a chimpanzee), the flared pelvis of a regular biped, the curved but relative short metatarsals of the foot, the hints of very little sexual dimorphism.

The ecology, too, is intriguing. The Afar depression was not such a depression then, and the weather was sufficiently damp for a fairly rich forest to be growing there, albeit with patches of grassland. By far the commonest antelopes were woodland-dwelling, browsing kudu. Ardi herself ate fruits and nuts from trees, not grasses -- this can be decided by isotopic analysis -- and she was a good climber as well as a walker. Her molar teeth had not grown robust like those of Lucy, for grinding grass seeds and roots, but nor had they shrunk for processing soft fruit as those of modern chimpanzees have.

Bastiat: Freedom and Optimism

A journalism prize to celebrate Frederic Bastiat

Frederic Bastiat's writings are full of brilliant rebukes against the restriction of trade, and the curtailment of human happiness such restrictions always bring. But it is in a discussion around the state funding of the arts that Bastiat most clearly articulates the pessimism behind the bureaucratic state and the life-enhancing optimism of those who believe in human freedom.

Our adversaries consider that an activity which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the legislator.

The latest evidence for the rationality of such optimism can, of course, be found in my book.

Chimps, Neanderthals and war

Did war prevent the invention of trade in other species?

Nick Wade has a good piece in today's New York Times about John Mitani's chronicling of warfare between troops of Chimpanzees in Uganda.

Dr. Mitani's team has now put a full picture together by following chimps on their patrols, witnessing 18 fatal attacks over 10 years and establishing that the warfare led to annexation of a neighbor's territory.

The fact that male chimpanzees systematically and stealthily patrol their boundaries in groups to kill neighbouring males has been known for a long time in Gombe in Tanzania, but critics have charged that it was unnaturally caused by human feeding of the chimps. That now seems unlikely.

More evidence of just how 'greatly exaggerated' the ocean acidification scare is

Natural variations in ocean pH both in time and space dwarf human-induced trends.

Pertinent to my recent response to New Scientist on ocean acidification, Willis Eschenbach has a fascinating piece at Wattsupwiththat on a study of ocean pH along a transect from Hawaii to Alaska. Turns out that the further north you go, the less alkaline the ocean:

As one goes from Hawaii to Alaska the pH slowly decreases along the transect, dropping from 8.05 all the way down to 7.65. This is a change in pH of almost half a unit.

The study also measured the change caused by carbon dioxide from industry:

Death of a great optimist

Norman Macrae 1923-2010

When I joined the Economist in 1983, Norman Macrae was the deputy editor. He died last week at the age of 87. Soon after I joined the staff, a thing called a computer terminal appeared on my desk and my electric typewriter disappeared. Around that time, Norman wrote a long article that became a book about the future. It was one of the strangest things I had ever read.

It had boundless optimism --

Over the last decade, I have written many articles in The Economist and delivered lectures in nearly 30 countries across the world saying the future should be much more rosy. This book explores the lovely future people could have if only all democrats made the right decisions.

The threat from ocean acidification is greatly exaggerated

Corals under threat? Yes, but not much from either warming or acidification.

As part of an `interview' with me, New Scientist published a critique by five scientists of two pages of my book The Rational Optimist. Despite its tone, this critique only confirms the accuracy of each of the statements in this section of the book. After reading their critiques, I stand even more firmly behind my conclusion that the threats to coral reefs from both man-made warming and ocean acidification are unlikely to be severe, rapid or urgent. In the case of acidification, this is underlined by a recent paper, published since my book was written, summarising the results of 372 papers and concluding that ocean acidification `may not be the widespread problem conjured into the 21st century'. The burden of proof is on those who see an urgent threat to corals from warming and acidification. Here is what I wrote (in bold), interspersed with summaries of the scientists' comments and my replies.

Take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient run-off and fishing - especially the harvesting of herbivorous fishes that otherwise keep reefs clean of algae. Yet environmentalists commonly talk as if climate change is a far greater threat than these, and they are cranking up the apocalyptic statements just as they did wrongly about forests and acid rain

Andy Ridgwell says `I agree that at least for some reef systems, other, and more local human factors such as fishing and pollution may be the greater danger' and Jelle Bijma says `I do agree that, for example, pollution and overfishing are also important problems, some even more important than the current impact of ocean acidification'. It was not therefore accurate of Liz Else to say that the critics accuse me of failing `to recognize that there is more to the health of corals than the amount of bicarbonate in the sea' They do not - she has misrepresented their views and mine.

New Scientist's errors

An attack on my book that gets it wrong

Update: now that I have seen the five scientists' comments, I find that remarkably they support and vindicate each one of my factual statements. I have posted a detailed analysis in a separate blog post.

Here's a letter I just sent to New Scientist:

In her misleading article about my book, among other errors Liz Else wrongly states that I `failed to recognize that there is more to the health of corals than the amount of bicarbonate in the sea'. Yet I clearly state in my book: `take coral reefs, which are suffering horribly from pollution, silt, nutrient runoff and fishing'. After doing the interview, Else asked me for proof of a statement in my book that `Even with tripled bicarbonate concentrations, corals show a continuing increase in both photosynthesis and calcification.' Presumably this was because her unnamed `experts' had challenged this statement. I was happy to supply her with the following extract from Craig Idso's book (`CO2, global warming and coral reefs'), which I cited in my book, and with the reference it cites (Herfort et al 2008. Journal of Phycology 44: 91-98): `This work reveals that additions of HCO3- to synthetic seawater continue to increase the calcification rate of Porites porites until the bicarbonate concentration exceeded three times that of seawater…Similar experiments on Acropora species showed that calcification and photosynthetic rates in these corals were enhanced to an even greater extent, with calcification continuing to increase above a quadrupling of the HCO3- concentration and photosynthesis saturating at triple the concentration of seawater'. I am sorry that instead of quoting this exchange between us, Else chose to fall back on unsubstantiated accusations of `misconceptions, selective reporting and failure to see the significance of historical changes in ocean acidity'. I took the trouble to back up my claims; she should have done so for her accusations.

Don't steal this!

Forbidden fruit is tempting

I just read a wonderful book Hybrid: the history and science of plant breeding by Noel Kingsbury.

It contains a charming story, of a Moravian priest called Father Schreiber, who was more interested in horticulture than holiness, and whose parish included Gregor Mendel's birthplace, Hyncice. As Kingsbury tells the tale:

Schreiber also had to face opposition, or at least suspicion, from a conservative peasantry. So in order to distribute new fruit varieties, he and the countess [Maria Walpurga Truchsess-Zeil, no less] developed a technique that has been used more than once down the ages in order to bring new genes to the countryside: subterfuge. A nursery for trees was established and word put out that these valuable seedlings were under guard, the guards being instructed to make a lot of noise if they heard anybody but not to actually arrest anyone. In a matter of days, all the seedlings had been stolen.

The planetary impact of people

Why are governments so keen on increasing the human footprint in the name of the environment?

I have written a longish piece about the human footprint on the earth, avaliable as a `ChangeThis' manifesto here

Here are a few extracts:

Monbiot's error

George Monbiot's attack on me in the Guardian is very misleading

George Monbiot's recent attack on me in the Guardian is misleading. I do not hate the state. In fact, my views are much more balanced than Monbiot's selective quotations imply. I argue that the state's role in sometimes impeding or destroying the process that generates prosperity needs to be recognised, as people from enslaved ancient Egyptians to modern North Koreans could testify. But as I mention in my book, I don't think that free markets, especially those in assets, should be completely unregulated. I do argue that free and fair commerce has the power to raise living standards.

Unlike Monbiot's article, my book isn't about me. It's about the billions of other people in the world who, through ingenuity, exchange and specialisation, have generated remarkable prosperity.

Monbiot, remember is the man who once wrote: ``every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.'' (see, George, two can play at selective quotation).

Richer for poorer

Average incomes of the poor now exceed those of the rich 50 years ago.

In my book I point out that an unemployed British father of three on welfare today receives more in state support than a man on the average wage received in income in 1957. It's an eye-catching reminder of how wrong J K Galbraith was to argue that affluence in the late 1950s had already gone too far.

Now the Institute of Fiscal Studies has compiled data on average incomes in Britain since 1961, coming to the remarkable conclusion that

in real terms the bottom 25% are now considerable richer than were the top 25% in 1961.

African optimism

Jonathon Porritt versus Jonathan Dimbleby

In my book I quote the English environmentalist Jonathon Porritt as follows: 'It's blindingly obvious [that] completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.'

At first I had assumed that the quote, which I had found in another book, must be out of context. Surely nobody would say anything so foolish or so heartless. Surely he was caricaturing some blimpish view from a reactionary? So I looked up the original article, in The Ecologist in 2007, to be sure I was not being unfair to quote him thus. You can read the whole article here. Here's the longer context of the quote.

Yet the facts speak for themselves: the fewer there are of us, the greater our personal carbon budgets - and just remember we're starting from a baseline here in the UK of around 12½ tonnes of CO2 per person!I can't tell you how politically incorrect it is to spell things out in those terms. Even those who are getting more and more enthusiastic about the idea of personal carbon budgets (including Environment Secretary David Miliband) wouldn't dream of giving voice to such a crass calculation. Leaders of our ever-so-right-on environment movement can barely bring themselves to utter the dreaded "p" word. The Millennium Development Goals don't mention population. Tony Blair's Commission for Africa ignored it entirely, even though it's blindingly obvious that completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest poverty. Our very own Department for International Development grits its teeth and reluctantly doles out little bits of money for family planning projects, but the idea that it should be the Department's No 1 priority - if it was remotely realistic about its poverty alleviation aspirations - remains anathema to most officials and ministers.

Unprecedented warming?

Around 7,000 years ago it was much, much warmer all around the globe.

There's a lot of debate about the `Medieval Warm Period'. But I've always been intrigued by the warm period of 7,000 years ago, known as the Holocene Optimum, and I have been doing some digging to find out just how warm it was. I've come away rather amazed.

Have a look at this image, which uses stalagmites in caves to estimate ancient temperatures (as graphed by Wilis Eschenbach)

Handaxe and mouse

Canadian style

The Globe and Mail (Toronto) has made a nice new version of my "handaxe and mouse" image to illustrate their review of The Rational Optimist

Ash, flu and mad cows

Caution should be applied to predictions as well as to risks

Tim Black has an excellent article in Spiked about the hypercautious European reaction to the Icelandic volcano in April:

We have sincediscoveredthat the maximum density of ash (100 micrograms of ash per cubic metre) over the UK during the ban was one fortieth of that nowdeemeda safe threshold (4,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre). In other words, the ban was nowhere near justified by what is now the official threshold.

He goes on to give some remarkable numbers from the similar over-reaction to avian flu:

Rational Optimism on the radio

Everything from star signs to slavery and coals to Newcastle

Listen to my interview on NPR's Leonard Lopate Show

and an MP3 of my interview on PM with Marc Colvin, in Australia

Seeds of an idea

Bacteria that live in the clouds and the prospect of controlling the weather

My good friend Dave Sands is not only a brilliant biologist -- I cite him in The Rational Optimist arguing for genetic modification to improve the quality rather than the quantity of food -- but a very fine poet. He's profiled in yesterday's New York Times discussing his latest theory that ice-forming pseudomonas bactera in the air play a central role in precipitation:

In the last few years, Dr. Sands and other researchers have accumulated evidence that the well-known group of bacteria, long known to live on agricultural crops, are far more widespread and may be part of a little-studied weather ecosystem. The principle is well accepted, but how widespread the phenomenon is remains a matter of debate.

If true, this could have all sorts of implications.

The Mustang test

Pollution from driven cars has fallen so fast it is now below that of parked cars in 1970

One small fact in my book has caught several readers' attention:

Today, a car emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in 1970 from leaks.

My source for this remarkable statistic was Johan Norberg's 2006 book När människan skapade världen. In a translation he sent me it reads:

Guardian interview: 'We can overcome disease, poverty and climate change

Jon Henley interviews Matt Ridley: The Rational Optimist is, essentially, about progress: how, of all the species on earth, only humans have managed so radically and completely to change the way they live. Animals, even the most intelligent ones, have not thus far known "economic growth" or "rising living standards" or "technological revolutions" (or, indeed, "credit crunches"). Why?

nterview in the Guardian today:

"If people are all the same underneath, how has society changed so fast and so radically? Life now is completely different to how it was 32,000 years ago. It's changed like that of no other species has. What's made that difference? Clearly our genes haven't changed; this process has happened far too fast for genetic change. My answer, bringing together my evolutionary knowledge and a lot of economic reading, is this: sex is to biology as exchange is to culture."

Sunday Times review

Generous praise from Dominic Lawson

The Rational Optimist in the Wall Street Journal

Human take-off after 45,000 years ago followed the invention of exchange

Organisms must compete in Nature's jungle

The Red Queen versus Craig Venter's new cell

Here is why Craig Venter's new organism carries absolutely no fears for me: the Red Queen. Evolution is a treadmill.

People speak about artificial life forms getting loose and running amok. But that's not how life works. It's a jungle out there.

Nature is continually trying new life forms on a truly gigantic scale and testing them against each other. Very few get to take over the world even briefly and even they soon succumb to evolving predators, parasites and competitors.

New York Times reviews The Rational Optimist

John Tierney writes in today's New York Times: Doomsayers beware, a bright future beckons

John Tierney reviews The Rational Optimist in today's New York Times:

Every now and then, someone comes along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list.

Sunday Times seria

Humans’ capacity for solving problems has been improving our lot for 10,000 years. Don’t think it will stop now

The Sunday Times printed an edited extract of the book on 16 May.

Shale to the chief

Gas is great stuff

People love to talk about the energy industry in voices of gloom and doom. The oil's running out, the lights are going out, the pollution's getting worse. But pause to consider the good news. Like shale gas.

Over the past decade, a wave of drilling around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet recoverable in North America alone-enough to supply the nation's natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200 trillion cubic feet of its own.

Imagine a source of energy...

First reviews of The Rational Optimist

These are a bit premature, but the book's available next week in the US, week after in the UK

Polarised on polar ice

Science gets polarised when people only read their friends' caricatures of their enemies' views

As own goals go, this was a stunning shot.

Organic's footprint

Buying organic food may make you feel superior, but stop pretending it is better for the planet

The quantity of cereals harvested in the world has trebled in 40 years [correction: nearly trebled in 50 years!], but the acreage planted to cereals has hardly changed at all.

(graph from my book)

The bright side of living longer

People are not only spending a longer time living, but a shorter time dying.

My good friend the evolutionary biologist and expert on old age, Tom Kirkwood, has made a splash in my local newspaper, The Newcastle Journal, by writing to all three British party leaders to ask them to emphasise the positive rather than the negative aspects of people living longer.

Our studies are revealing high levels of capability and good quality life among people who are well into their 80s. They are not all in poor health needing high levels of care. Indeed, many view their health as 'excellent' and still live highly independent lives.

I point out in The Rational Optimist that the average lifespan has increased by a third during my lifetime; life expectancy is increasing globally by 5 hours a day. Kirkwood's Changing Age Charter, like my book, says:

Oil spills

Bad news from oil spills has been getting rarer, though that may be of little comfort right now

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a horror, for people and for wildlife. It will surely cause huge damage. It is a reminder that for all the talk of global impacts, the worst environmental crises are still local ones.

But it is worth pausing to reflect how rare such terrible oil spills have now become. Here is the data on world tanker spills over the past 40 years:

Ill wind

The myths of green energy

I've admired Robert Bryce's work since he did such a great job of exposing the biofuel boondoggle inGusher of Lies.

Now he has a new book, which I have just kindled, on the myths of green energy, called Power Hungry.

He summarises his argument in the Washington Post. One fact that jumps out is how much worse the dependence on foregin powers green energy would be than even oil is:

First Rational Optimist lecture

Matt will be in New York giving a talk at the New York Academy of Sciences on the evening of 19 May. Speaking about `How prosperity evolves' and selling books. Feel free to spread the word.

On thinking for yourself

Never underestimate the experts' ability to get things wrong

Seth Roberts has read three new books about how emperors are often more naked than people tell them they are. I've read two of those books and had much the same reaction. The trust-the-experts inertia of the financial markets described by Michael Lewis in The Big Short is much like that in the climate debate described by Andrew Montford in The Hockey Stick Illusion. Roberts's third book is about Bernie Madoff.

I call these books The Emperor's New Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson:Sometimes the "best people" aren't right. Sometimes there's a point of view from which they're glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short several people found this point of view.

In Monty Python's immortal words:

Chiefs, priests and thieves

Commerce has been the source of more virtue than glory or courage or faith

Read this, taken from Roger Crowley's brilliant book Empires of the Sea:

Everyone employed chained labour -- captured slaves, convicts, and, in the Christian ships, paupers so destitute they sold themselves to the galley captains. It was these wretches, chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made sea wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death. Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were sometimes driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and short.

And this:

Dilute till safe

Volcanic ash particles are not like burglars: linear dose dependent.

John Brockman's Edge site has lots of short essay-lets on what the ash cloud episode means. Maybe because of the way it was reported in the USA, remarkably few of the commentaries seem to get that it was a huge buearucratic over-reaction to a theoretical model and based on a zero-tolerance approach to ash that makes no sense. And it caused real economic and emtoional pain.

No coincidence that the models were built for radioactivity. Ash, chemicals, fallout and heat are things which are not linear in their risk. That is to say, a very low dose is not slightly more dangerous than no dose. It's no more dangerous. This is not true of burglars and smallpox viruses.

Here's my contribution to the Edge collection:

Down PAT

Technology reduces human impact

The always perceptive Indur Goklany has turned his attention to IPAT, the formula by which some environmentalists insist that human impact (I) gets worse if population (P), affluence (A) or technology (T) increases. This simple formula has become highly influential, but it fails to explain why human well being keeps increasing as P, A and T climb ever higher:

An ancient matin

Neanderthals may have contributed a few genes to posterity after all

Tantalising clues have been emerging for some time from human genomes that Neanderthals may have contributed a few genes to posterity after all. That `we' mated with `them' occasionally.

The clues come in the form of widely differing DNA sequences that seem to converge on common ancestors that lived long before modern human beings came out of Africa 80,000 years ago or so.

There is good reason to be cautious -- it is possible that it just means lots of very distantly Africans joined the migration -- but now it seems a tipping point is being reached in the debate. The latest study of 600 microsatellite (fingerprint) sequences from 2,000 people is being interpreted as evidence of two separate episodes of genetic mixing between Neanderthals (or heidelbergensis) and ex-African `moderns'. SeeNeanderthals may have interbred with humans.

Printed books might give people new ideas, says pope

Shock news. Internet not all bad.

David Brooks in the New York Times has news of a contrarian finding about the internet:

Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association - like meeting people at work, at church or through community groups. You're more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood.

Systematic over-reaction

The volcanic ash panic is just the latest example of risk misjudgment

I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to Iceland's ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.

It now turns out Europe's reaction was more extreme than America's would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights. Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:

The International Air Transport Association...expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership"

How not to defend science

Climate science inquiries are only exacerbating the damage to science's reputation

Bishop Hill is doing a great job of following the various inquiries into the climate emails.

The unthoroughness, biased membership and gullibility of the Oxburgh and Russell inquiries has the effect on a lukewarmer like me of driving me further into the sceptical camp. If the case for man made global warming needs this much flagrant whitewashing, then maybe, I begin to think, the exaggerations and mistakes are not just the result of sloppiness, but are part of a deliberate attempt to camouflage the truth to keep the gravy train on the track. If the science was any good then it could stand proper scrutiny.

As Christpher Booker writes:

No contrails

Iceland's volcanic cloud keeps the sky clear of planes: will that cause more nocturnal cooling?

The sky's bright blue right now, which is weird because I am looking up through a 5,000-metre thick plume of volcanic ash from Iceland. This has stopped all flights in the UK air space and much of northern Europe.

(As somebody quipped on the radio, `Dear Iceland, we said send CASH'.)

So there are no vapour condensation trails from jets, which prompts the thought: did anybody ever figure out what con trails do to the climate?

Hold the good news

A rare glimpse into how pressure groups try to keep the good news off the front page

One of the themes in my forthcoming book is that there are huge vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public. That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes to have it said that `their' problem is not urgent and getting worse.

The lengths that acid rain alarmists in the EPA went to to prevent the result of the NAPAP study reaching Congress before crucial votes in the early 1990s is well documented, and this was when this phenomenon first dawned on me. But now I see it everywhere.

Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups' claims of urgency and deterioration, because those are the two things that get editors' attention, too.

Let society evolve

Bottom up thinking from a political party at last

The climate blame game

Whatever your research, always try to mention climate change. That way lies attention

A scientist does a study of how Arctic seabirds die. It's not a bad idea: die they do, but not from the usual diseases and predators that kill birds in more temperate zones. So what does kill them?

He pores over thousands of records from birdwatchers in the Arctic and concludes that weather-related events kill a lot of them. Fulmars run into cliffs in fog, Murres get buried in landslides when cliffs collapse. Birds get swept away in storms. And so on.

Now the scientist has two options. He can say in a paper that a lot of Arctic birds die due to `factors related to weather' and bask in perpetual obscurity. Or he can slip in, just before the word `weather', the phrase `climate and'.

Stretching credulity

Spiritual DNA energy, the creation of the universe and flattened wheat

Please look at these four objects below

Are they:

There never was a golden age of freedom

Life was more free in the past only for the elite -- if at all

I will have a lot to say in The Rational Optimist about golden-age nostalgia.

It's an easy trap, to think that the past was better or more free than the present. It's not hard to show that the past was poorer for most people, but was it more free?

Conservatives and libertarians often like to imply that life was better in the old days, because the weight of bureaucratic government rested lighter on people's shoulders, but even socialists like Rousseau, Engels or William Morris used to hark back to noble savagery, egalitarian peasantry or Merrie medieval England before the Norman yoke for their golden age. Back in the golden age itself, Hesiod was complaining that things were worse than they used to be.

Not top down

You can have order in a flock of birds or a society without having a dictator

The thing about tightly coordinated flocks of birds is that they can't work by top-down planning and they can't be anarchic free-for-alls either. Now comes news that they are in between: there is no single leader but some birds are more influential than others in which way the flock turns.

Here's what the researchers, led by Dr Dora Biro of Oxford, say:

The authors say that a hierarchical arrangement may foster more flexible and efficient decision-making compared with that of singly led or egalitarian groups. In future studies, the scientists plan to investigate whether leaders are better navigators, and whether hierarchies persist in larger groups and in other types of social animal. "If it's true that there's an evolutionary advantage to making decisions in this way, then there's absolutely a reason to assume that it could have evolved in other species too," Biro says.

The long-legged ape

The new 1.9m year old hominin fossils from South Africa

The more we know, the more we don't know

Science is the exploration of ignorance

Science is not the cataloguing of facts or the accumulation of knowledge. It is the production of ignorance. Scientists are in the business of finding new seams of mystery.

As Jennifer Doudna at U C Berkeley puts it in Erika Check Hayden's Nature article about the tenth anniversary of the first draft of the human genome sequence:

"The more we know, the more we realize there is to know."

Moral materialism

Richer and nicer in the future?

David Brooks on why America's future is bright:

In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It's always excelled at decentralized community-building. It's always had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products. Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it down.

Environmental heresy

Who's Galileo and who's the pope today?

Unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition of remarks in an article by the climate scientist James Hansen:

This is not the 17th century, when "beliefs" trumped science, forcing Galileo to recant his understanding of the solar system


Hyper Missing Link

Great new fossil, but the missing link it aint

Big news?

The Telegraph: Missing link between man and apes found.

The Sunday Times: Fossil from cave is a 'missing link'

Being a customer of your customers

How fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916

From Maggie Koerth Baker at, a fascinating glimpse of how fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916. Pity she spoils it by an attempt at finding the cloud in the silver lining at the end.

Centralized electricity changed energy production from a difficult, in-home process that kept the messy by-products of progress literally in your face, into something magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children. For the first time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the wall. All benefit, no detriment. Action without consequences. In other words, this is the point where everybody went a little bit bonkers.

The beauty is that this is still happening in parts of Africa and Asia. A report on the Philippines estimated that each family derives $108 a month in benefits from connecting to the electricity grid - cheaper lighting ($37), cheaper radio and television ($19), more years in education ($20), time saving ($24) and business productivity ($8). As the miracle of electricity reaches a village, people inhale less smoke, read more school books, cut down fewer trees and find time to do other things that earn them more money.

All because a Pisan merchant went to North Africa in the late 1100s.

Greenland's melting ice?

Exaggerations run rife while the reality is strangely absent from recent reporting on melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Breathless reporting last week of a new estimate of Greenland's melting ice.

It's higher than it was before:

"The changes on the Greenland ice sheet are happening fast, and we are definitely losing more ice mass than we had anticipated," says study co-author Isabella Velicogna of the University of California-Irvine.

High Priests of Science

Politicising, propagandising and polarising the climate issue

A fine analysis by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the way that climate science has been distorted by environmentalism. They write:

"The result has been an ever-escalating set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic, imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific, short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.''

Those of us who love science - the habit of licensed curiosity, not the bureaucratic machine - have been increasingly dismayed by the way that its high priests have been behaving over the climate issue: trying to politicize, propagandise and polarize where they should be questioning, debating and being awkward. The most shocking thing to me about 'Climategate' was not the emails, but the any-excuse-will-do reaction to them from the scientific establishment.

Arrival of the Chiffchaffs

Chiffchaffs are the first summer visitors to arrive, around here at least, and their distinctive song is hard to miss, and one day near the vernal equinox suddenly there they are. I have written down the date in my diary most years since 1990. Last night I went back through the diaries and collated the data. It's hardly scientific, but notice there is absolutely no sign of a drift towards earlier arrival: if anything the reverse.

Yet here is whatThe Telegraph says:

A new "species" of human?

Genetic diversity within the Neanderthals is a more likely explanation

Woke to find the newspapers all claiming a new "species" of human being discovered in central Asia. Here's the Guardian:

"The finding suggests an undocumented human species lived alongside Neanderthals and early modern humans in parts of Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago."

Leave aside the fact that it's just a bone from a little finger, leave aside the fact that they have only sequenced some mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA. Assume, for the sake of argument, that they have ruled out contamination. Applaud - as we should - the achievement of recovering DNA from the fossil and sequencing it.

New study: Man flu not a myth

A new study reiterates a long-standing evolutionary conundrum

So Man flu is not a myth, because testosterone inhibits the immune response.

This has been known to biologists for ages. In The Red Queen, I challenged readers to explain why bodies should be designed that way: why set up an immune system in such a way that it gets hindered by normal hormonal action? I still find it baffling. Over the years readers took up my challenge and wrote to me. They still do. Their answers nearly always boil down to a version of this: to weed out weedy males. That is to say, if males cannot both keep their testosterone levels up and resist disease they don't deserve to contribute to posterity's genes.

Trouble is, like all group selectionist arguments, it's vulnerable to the evolutionary free rider. Along comes a mutant animal that breaks the link between testosterone and illness and hey presto it can breed away to its gonads' content, propagating its subprime genes as if they were triple A.

World Poverty is Falling

Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters.

Kathy Lette in the Sunday Telegraph

Very nice piece ofrational optimism

Thousands of results on ocean acidification

A comprehensive database confirms it is a greatly exaggerated worry

For those who think my recent report on ocean acidification and plankton is unrepresentative, do check out this comprehensive database that has collated all studies. The conclusion is very, very clear: PH reduction has a negative effect only at greater changes than are likely in the twenty-first century. At likely changes, the effect is positive. Can we have some honesty from scientists, please?

In the final graphical representations of the information contained in our Ocean Acidification Database, we have plotted the averages of all responses to seawater acidification (produced by additions of both HCl and CO2) for all five of the life characteristics of the various marine organisms that we have analyzed over the five pH reduction ranges that we discuss in ourDescription of the Ocean Acidification Database Tables, which pH ranges we illustrate in the figure below.

17 Reasons to be cheerful

Reader's Digest summarises rational optimism

April's Reader's Digest carries an article based on excerpts from my book and an interview with me:

"The world has never been a better place to live in," says science writer Matt Ridley, "and it will keep on getting better." Today, in a world gripped by global economic crisis and afflicted with poverty, disease, and war, them's fightin' words in some quarters. Ridley's critics have called him a "denialist" and "shameful" and have accused him of "playing fast and loose with the truth" for his views on climate change and the free market.

Yet Ridley, 54, author most recently of The Rational Optimist, sticks to his guns. "It is not insane to believe in a happy future for people and the planet," he says. Ridley, who's been a foreign correspondent, a zoologist, an economist, and a financier, brings a broad perspective to his sunny outlook. "People say I'm bonkers to claim the world will go on getting better, yet I can't stop myself," he says. Read on to see how Ridley makes his case. Brilliant or bonkers? You decide.