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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: 04-2011

Giving money for lobbying for money

The circular nature of some subsidies

Update: the Taxpayers' Alliance has a major report on this issue, by Matthew Sinclair, which concluded that

Over £37 million was spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in 2007-08. That is nearly as much as the £38.9 million all three major political parties combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005 election. But, the true amount spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning may be much higher as this report has taken a conservative approach, focussing just on the most clear-cut examples.]

Is anybody else as shocked by this as I am?

Julian Simon on rational optimism

Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it has aged not at all:


Nobody mentioned the Spanish Inquisition

Lord (Chris) Patten, new chairman of the BBC Trust, has been sounding off, militantly, at the militancy of atheists.

He scored a bit of an own goal, though, with this remark:

The origin of joy

Why do we like springtime so much?

Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the year than I said. See below.

A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday's Times:

I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.

My genes are my own

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the regulation of genetic testing

I just took a detailed genetic test by sending some spit to a firm in California and looking up the results on the Net. It seems I'm probably descended from a peculiarly fecund fourth-century Irish king called Niall of the Nine Hostages and a slightly more unusual Mesopotamian Neolithic matriarch. Oh, and I have mostly average risk of most diseases: The medical part of the test gave me a bit of risk here, a bit of reassurance there, nothing very drastic.

Econophobia vs ecophilia

Economics for scientists

In my experience, scientists often have a reflexive contempt for economics. Speaking as a scientist who came to understand economics after leaving academia, I find this attitude frustrating, because I see how they miss the fundamentally bottom-up, emergent, evolving nature of human society that the field of economics strives to understand (even as they often acknowledge the bottom-up, emergent nature of evolution and of ecosystems).

Twain's half full glass

A nineteenth century blast of rational optimism

Peter Risdon writes to draw to my attention what Mark Twain wrote to Walt Whitman on this 70th birthday:

Effect and cause

Getting cause and consequence confused is a surprisingly common error in science

Black propaganda

The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for one will never trust a story from Black again.


So here are a few things he should have told you about the other side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about as partisan as the BBC.


Alan Carlin has a peer reviewed paper in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which concludes that climate policy is, in my terminology, a tourniquet for a nosebleed:

The economic benefits of reducing CO2 emissions may be about two orders of magnitude less than those estimated by most economists because the climate sensitivity factor (CSF) is much lower than assumed by the United Nations because feedback is negative rather than positive and the effects of CO2 emissions reductions on atmospheric CO2 appear to be short rather than long lasting.

The costs of CO2 emissions reductions are very much higher than usually estimated because of technological and implementation problems recently identified.

Serial thriller

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

The last one is available now.

Alzheimer's and protein solubility

The discovery, announced this week, of several genetic mutations that predispose people toward Alzheimer's disease is intriguing, because the genes are associated with cholesterol metabolism and inflammation. The Alzheimer's jigsaw is a long way from being complete, but the pieces are emerging, and this new evidence fits quite nicely with the other pieces in suggesting a role for inflammation.

Piece 1 is the immediate cause of Alzheimer's disease: the appearance of insoluble "plaques" made of a small protein called amyloid beta (A-beta for short) inside brain cells. These plaques block the traffic of molecules in the cells. Eventually another small protein, called tau, also starts to crystallize in this way to form "tangles." Both symptoms are diagnostic of Alzheimer's, and similar ones characterize other neurological syndromes such as Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob's.

Puzzle piece 2 is the APOE gene on chromosome 19, long known as a powerful influence on whether you will get Alzheimer's disease. Having two copies of the 4 version of the gene makes you 20 times more likely than average to get the symptoms before the age of 75. (Having at least one copy of the 2 version makes you less likely than average to get the symptoms.) One of APOE's jobs is to break down plaques, and the 4 version is inefficient at this task.


As I keep saying, shale gas is indeed revolutionising world energy supply.

The US Energy Information Administration officially uses the word `vast' for shale gas resources outside the US:

Although the shale gas resource estimates will likely change over time as additional information becomes available, the report shows that the international shale gas resource base is vast

More for less

The Tourniquet Theory

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

Thinning vouchers

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain, solution to obesity

Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example. Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers. But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing obesity is working.

Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically obese. The proportion hasn't swelled in recent years, but it hasn't shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters, virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans, calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans, monetary rewards for weight loss-they've all been tried, and they've all largely failed.

Keeping an open mind about the sun

Correlation ain't causation.

But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than anything relating to carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate, before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide could be at work.