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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: 04-2010

Ill wind

The myths of green energy

I've admired Robert Bryce's work since he did such a great job of exposing the biofuel boondoggle inGusher of Lies.

Now he has a new book, which I have just kindled, on the myths of green energy, called Power Hungry.

He summarises his argument in the Washington Post. One fact that jumps out is how much worse the dependence on foregin powers green energy would be than even oil is:

First Rational Optimist lecture

Matt will be in New York giving a talk at the New York Academy of Sciences on the evening of 19 May. Speaking about `How prosperity evolves' and selling books. Feel free to spread the word.

On thinking for yourself

Never underestimate the experts' ability to get things wrong

Seth Roberts has read three new books about how emperors are often more naked than people tell them they are. I've read two of those books and had much the same reaction. The trust-the-experts inertia of the financial markets described by Michael Lewis in The Big Short is much like that in the climate debate described by Andrew Montford in The Hockey Stick Illusion. Roberts's third book is about Bernie Madoff.

I call these books The Emperor's New Clothes Trilogy. Their broad lesson:Sometimes the "best people" aren't right. Sometimes there's a point of view from which they're glaringly wrong. The Hockey Stick Illusion is about how Stephen McIntyre found this point of view. In No One Would Listen Markopolos found this point of view. In The Big Short several people found this point of view.

In Monty Python's immortal words:

Chiefs, priests and thieves

Commerce has been the source of more virtue than glory or courage or faith

Read this, taken from Roger Crowley's brilliant book Empires of the Sea:

Everyone employed chained labour -- captured slaves, convicts, and, in the Christian ships, paupers so destitute they sold themselves to the galley captains. It was these wretches, chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made sea wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death. Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were sometimes driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and short.

And this:

Dilute till safe

Volcanic ash particles are not like burglars: linear dose dependent.

John Brockman's Edge site has lots of short essay-lets on what the ash cloud episode means. Maybe because of the way it was reported in the USA, remarkably few of the commentaries seem to get that it was a huge buearucratic over-reaction to a theoretical model and based on a zero-tolerance approach to ash that makes no sense. And it caused real economic and emtoional pain.

No coincidence that the models were built for radioactivity. Ash, chemicals, fallout and heat are things which are not linear in their risk. That is to say, a very low dose is not slightly more dangerous than no dose. It's no more dangerous. This is not true of burglars and smallpox viruses.

Here's my contribution to the Edge collection:

Down PAT

Technology reduces human impact

The always perceptive Indur Goklany has turned his attention to IPAT, the formula by which some environmentalists insist that human impact (I) gets worse if population (P), affluence (A) or technology (T) increases. This simple formula has become highly influential, but it fails to explain why human well being keeps increasing as P, A and T climb ever higher:

An ancient matin

Neanderthals may have contributed a few genes to posterity after all

Tantalising clues have been emerging for some time from human genomes that Neanderthals may have contributed a few genes to posterity after all. That `we' mated with `them' occasionally.

The clues come in the form of widely differing DNA sequences that seem to converge on common ancestors that lived long before modern human beings came out of Africa 80,000 years ago or so.

There is good reason to be cautious -- it is possible that it just means lots of very distantly Africans joined the migration -- but now it seems a tipping point is being reached in the debate. The latest study of 600 microsatellite (fingerprint) sequences from 2,000 people is being interpreted as evidence of two separate episodes of genetic mixing between Neanderthals (or heidelbergensis) and ex-African `moderns'. SeeNeanderthals may have interbred with humans.

Printed books might give people new ideas, says pope

Shock news. Internet not all bad.

David Brooks in the New York Times has news of a contrarian finding about the internet:

Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association - like meeting people at work, at church or through community groups. You're more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood.

Systematic over-reaction

The volcanic ash panic is just the latest example of risk misjudgment

I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to Iceland's ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.

It now turns out Europe's reaction was more extreme than America's would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights. Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:

The International Air Transport Association...expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership"

How not to defend science

Climate science inquiries are only exacerbating the damage to science's reputation

Bishop Hill is doing a great job of following the various inquiries into the climate emails.

The unthoroughness, biased membership and gullibility of the Oxburgh and Russell inquiries has the effect on a lukewarmer like me of driving me further into the sceptical camp. If the case for man made global warming needs this much flagrant whitewashing, then maybe, I begin to think, the exaggerations and mistakes are not just the result of sloppiness, but are part of a deliberate attempt to camouflage the truth to keep the gravy train on the track. If the science was any good then it could stand proper scrutiny.

As Christpher Booker writes:

No contrails

Iceland's volcanic cloud keeps the sky clear of planes: will that cause more nocturnal cooling?

The sky's bright blue right now, which is weird because I am looking up through a 5,000-metre thick plume of volcanic ash from Iceland. This has stopped all flights in the UK air space and much of northern Europe.

(As somebody quipped on the radio, `Dear Iceland, we said send CASH'.)

So there are no vapour condensation trails from jets, which prompts the thought: did anybody ever figure out what con trails do to the climate?

Hold the good news

A rare glimpse into how pressure groups try to keep the good news off the front page

One of the themes in my forthcoming book is that there are huge vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public. That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes to have it said that `their' problem is not urgent and getting worse.

The lengths that acid rain alarmists in the EPA went to to prevent the result of the NAPAP study reaching Congress before crucial votes in the early 1990s is well documented, and this was when this phenomenon first dawned on me. But now I see it everywhere.

Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups' claims of urgency and deterioration, because those are the two things that get editors' attention, too.

Let society evolve

Bottom up thinking from a political party at last

The climate blame game

Whatever your research, always try to mention climate change. That way lies attention

A scientist does a study of how Arctic seabirds die. It's not a bad idea: die they do, but not from the usual diseases and predators that kill birds in more temperate zones. So what does kill them?

He pores over thousands of records from birdwatchers in the Arctic and concludes that weather-related events kill a lot of them. Fulmars run into cliffs in fog, Murres get buried in landslides when cliffs collapse. Birds get swept away in storms. And so on.

Now the scientist has two options. He can say in a paper that a lot of Arctic birds die due to `factors related to weather' and bask in perpetual obscurity. Or he can slip in, just before the word `weather', the phrase `climate and'.

Stretching credulity

Spiritual DNA energy, the creation of the universe and flattened wheat

Please look at these four objects below

Are they:

There never was a golden age of freedom

Life was more free in the past only for the elite -- if at all

I will have a lot to say in The Rational Optimist about golden-age nostalgia.

It's an easy trap, to think that the past was better or more free than the present. It's not hard to show that the past was poorer for most people, but was it more free?

Conservatives and libertarians often like to imply that life was better in the old days, because the weight of bureaucratic government rested lighter on people's shoulders, but even socialists like Rousseau, Engels or William Morris used to hark back to noble savagery, egalitarian peasantry or Merrie medieval England before the Norman yoke for their golden age. Back in the golden age itself, Hesiod was complaining that things were worse than they used to be.

Not top down

You can have order in a flock of birds or a society without having a dictator

The thing about tightly coordinated flocks of birds is that they can't work by top-down planning and they can't be anarchic free-for-alls either. Now comes news that they are in between: there is no single leader but some birds are more influential than others in which way the flock turns.

Here's what the researchers, led by Dr Dora Biro of Oxford, say:

The authors say that a hierarchical arrangement may foster more flexible and efficient decision-making compared with that of singly led or egalitarian groups. In future studies, the scientists plan to investigate whether leaders are better navigators, and whether hierarchies persist in larger groups and in other types of social animal. "If it's true that there's an evolutionary advantage to making decisions in this way, then there's absolutely a reason to assume that it could have evolved in other species too," Biro says.

The long-legged ape

The new 1.9m year old hominin fossils from South Africa

The more we know, the more we don't know

Science is the exploration of ignorance

Science is not the cataloguing of facts or the accumulation of knowledge. It is the production of ignorance. Scientists are in the business of finding new seams of mystery.

As Jennifer Doudna at U C Berkeley puts it in Erika Check Hayden's Nature article about the tenth anniversary of the first draft of the human genome sequence:

"The more we know, the more we realize there is to know."

Moral materialism

Richer and nicer in the future?

David Brooks on why America's future is bright:

In sum, the U.S. is on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It's always excelled at decentralized community-building. It's always had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products. Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it down.

Environmental heresy

Who's Galileo and who's the pope today?

Unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition of remarks in an article by the climate scientist James Hansen:

This is not the 17th century, when "beliefs" trumped science, forcing Galileo to recant his understanding of the solar system

and

Hyper Missing Link

Great new fossil, but the missing link it aint

Big news?

The Telegraph: Missing link between man and apes found.

The Sunday Times: Fossil from cave is a 'missing link'

Being a customer of your customers

How fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916

From Maggie Koerth Baker at boingboing.net, a fascinating glimpse of how fresh and wondrous electricity seemed to Americans in 1916. Pity she spoils it by an attempt at finding the cloud in the silver lining at the end.

Centralized electricity changed energy production from a difficult, in-home process that kept the messy by-products of progress literally in your face, into something magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children. For the first time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the wall. All benefit, no detriment. Action without consequences. In other words, this is the point where everybody went a little bit bonkers.

The beauty is that this is still happening in parts of Africa and Asia. A report on the Philippines estimated that each family derives $108 a month in benefits from connecting to the electricity grid - cheaper lighting ($37), cheaper radio and television ($19), more years in education ($20), time saving ($24) and business productivity ($8). As the miracle of electricity reaches a village, people inhale less smoke, read more school books, cut down fewer trees and find time to do other things that earn them more money.

All because a Pisan merchant went to North Africa in the late 1100s.

Greenland's melting ice?

Exaggerations run rife while the reality is strangely absent from recent reporting on melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Breathless reporting last week of a new estimate of Greenland's melting ice.

It's higher than it was before:

"The changes on the Greenland ice sheet are happening fast, and we are definitely losing more ice mass than we had anticipated," says study co-author Isabella Velicogna of the University of California-Irvine.