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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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Archive for tag: the-times

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 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.

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)”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.


A new work of art that is also public open space

The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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%?

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 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.

Serial thriller

The Times has been serialising seven chapters of The Rational Optimist for a week each.

The last one is available now.

The Tourniquet Theory

I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind paywall)

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

The asymmetry effect

Will exagerated claims about ocean acidification provoke responses, or only sceptical ones?

Whether it's weather or climate that matters

Yes, cold weather is just weather. But that's the point.

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.

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.