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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: 07-2012

The perils of confirmation bias - part 2

What keeps scientists accurate is rivals' scepticism, not their own

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

If, as I argued last week, scientists are just as prone as everybody else to confirmation bias ­ to looking for evidence to support rather than test their ideas ­ then how is it that science, unlike cults and superstitions, does change its mind and find new things?

The answer was spelled out by the psychologist Raymond Nickerson of Tufts University in a paper written in 1998: "It is not so much the critical attitude that individual scientists have taken with respect to their own ideas that has given science the success it has enjoyed... but more the fact that individual scientists have been highly motivated to demonstrate that hypotheses that are held by some other scientist(s) are false."

The perils of confirmation bias - part 1

How scientists collect positive evidence rather than test theories

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

There's a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché: that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it. Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.

Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they collect confirming evidence.

Who's in charge if we find life on Mars?

Apart from the Martians, that is

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

If all goes well next month, Curiosity, NASA's latest mission to Mars, will land in the Gale crater, a 3.5-billion-year-old, 96-mile-wide depression near the planet's equator. Out will roll a car-size rover to search for signs of life, among other things. It will drill into rocks and sample the contents, using a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer.

In the unlikely event that the project finds evidence of life, then what? In particular, who is in charge of deciding what we should do if we encounter living Martian creatures?

How Darwin would reform Britain's banks

Top down design is flawed even in finance

The Times published my op-ed on banking reform:

It is not yet clear whether the current rage against the banks will do more harm than good: whether we are about to throw the baby of banking as a vital utility out with the bathwater of banking as a wasteful casino. But what is clear is that the current mood of Bankerdämmerung is an opportunity as well as a danger. The fact that so many people agree that some kind of drastic reform is needed, all the way along a spectrum from Milibands to mega-Tories, might just open the window through which far-reaching reform of the financial system enters.

All the actors involved bear some blame. First, investment bankers and the principals in financial companies that cluster around them have trousered an increasing share of the returns from the financial markets, leaving less for their customers and shareholders, while getting "too big to fail", so passing their risks to taxpayers.

Two rival kinds of plants and their future

Can rice match maize's yield?

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

Two rival designs of plant biochemistry compete to dominate the globe. One, called C3 after the number of carbon atoms in the initial sugars it makes, is old, but still dominant. Rice is a C3 plant. The other, called C4, is newer in evolutionary history, and now has about 21% of the photosynthesis "market." Corn is a C4 plant. In hot weather, the C3 mechanism becomes inefficient at grabbing carbon dioxide from the air, but in cool weather C4 stops working altogether. So at first glance it seems as if global warming should benefit C4.

England's wettest June -- noise, not signal

The Met Office keeps getting 3-month forecasts wrong on the warm side

I wrote the following op-ed in The Times (behind a paywall) on 2 July.

As I cowered in my parked car in a street in Newcastle last Thursday, nearly deafened by hail on the roof of the car, thunder from the black sky and shrieking girls from the doorway of a school, a dim recollection swam into my mind. After inching back home slowly, through the flooded streets, I googled to refresh the memory. On 23 March this year, the Meteorological Office issued the following prediction:

"The forecast for average UK rainfall slightly favours drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June as a whole, and also slightly favours April being the driest of the 3 months. With this forecast, the water resources situation in southern, eastern and central England is likely to deteriorate further during the April-May-June period."