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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.
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
My recent column in The Times is on wildlife
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
My Times column on genetic modification of
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
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
My Times column on cancer, luck and good
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.
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.
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.
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
My column in the Times:
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
My Times column on who started bitcoin and what
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ourworldindata.org, 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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
My Times column tackles the misleading metaphor of the slippery
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
My Times column on the BBC's unbalanced
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.
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
My Times column is on economic projections for the
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
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.
My column in last week's Times was on the rise in
employment, reforms to welfare and the productivity puzzle in
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
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.
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
My Times column is on the missing airliner and
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.
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.
My book review for The Times of William Easterly's new book "The
Tyranny of Experts"
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.
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.
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).
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.
My Times column this week was on the facts behind the
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
My Times column is on the dangers of omitting
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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 . . .”
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.
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
My review of Gregory Zuckerman's book The Frackers appeared in The Times on 23
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
My regular Times column from 26th September
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
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.
My review in The Times of Bill Bryson's fine book, "One
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Update: I have added a reply to a critic of the article
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.
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
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?
This is a version of an article I published in The Times on 27
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
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.
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
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.
The Times has published my article on Northumberlandia today.
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.
I wrote the following op-ed in The Times (behind a paywall) on 2
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
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
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.
Here's (belatedly) a piece I published in the Times last
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.
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
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%?
I published an article in The Times this week about fossil
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
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.
Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the
year than I said. See below.
A meditation on the English spring I wrote for
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.
The Times has been serialising seven chapters
of The Rational Optimist for a week each.
The last one is available now.
I wrote this piece for The Times yesterday (original behind
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.