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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 date: 03-2012

Nature's dynamic non-balance

Emma Marris's fine new book on ecology

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

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

17 reasons to be cheerful

Reader's Digest on rational optimism

Rival theories for a global cooling

Did a cosmic impact cause the Younger Dryas cooling?

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

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

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

Diamandis and Kotler reply

Maybe I was too pessimistic

From the Ideas Market Blog at the wall Street Journal:

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

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

Blurring the line between genetic and infectious disease

Wired for culture

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

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

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

The beginning of the end of wind

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

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

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

Thousands of results on ocean acidification

A comprehensive database confirms it is a greatly exaggerated worry

For those who think my recent report on ocean acidification and plankton is unrepresentative, do check out this comprehensive database that has collated all studies. The conclusion is very, very clear: PH reduction has a negative effect only at greater changes than are likely in the twenty-first century. At likely changes, the effect is positive. Can we have some honesty from scientists, please?

In the final graphical representations of the information contained in our Ocean Acidification Database, we have plotted the averages of all responses to seawater acidification (produced by additions of both HCl and CO2) for all five of the life characteristics of the various marine organisms that we have analyzed over the five pH reduction ranges that we discuss in ourDescription of the Ocean Acidification Database Tables, which pH ranges we illustrate in the figure below.

17 Reasons to be cheerful

Reader's Digest summarises rational optimism

April's Reader's Digest carries an article based on excerpts from my book and an interview with me:

"The world has never been a better place to live in," says science writer Matt Ridley, "and it will keep on getting better." Today, in a world gripped by global economic crisis and afflicted with poverty, disease, and war, them's fightin' words in some quarters. Ridley's critics have called him a "denialist" and "shameful" and have accused him of "playing fast and loose with the truth" for his views on climate change and the free market.

Yet Ridley, 54, author most recently of The Rational Optimist, sticks to his guns. "It is not insane to believe in a happy future for people and the planet," he says. Ridley, who's been a foreign correspondent, a zoologist, an economist, and a financier, brings a broad perspective to his sunny outlook. "People say I'm bonkers to claim the world will go on getting better, yet I can't stop myself," he says. Read on to see how Ridley makes his case. Brilliant or bonkers? You decide.