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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: 09-2010

Science in action

Maurice Wilkins's letters to Francis Crick turn up

Francis Crick's letters from the 1950s, supposedly thrown away by `an over-zealous secretary', have come to light in Sydney Brenner's papers. Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski found them when they went through the Brenner archive. The secretary is exonerated. The Crick Brenner office (they shared a room) was moved twice in the early 1960s.

As one of Crick's biographers I have done some interviews, for example with the LA Times.

My main reaction is that this is a thrilling discovery that adds lots of colour and enriches the story but does not rewrite history in any fundamental way. Not that I have read all the letters yet.

Are cattle an endangered species?

Lists of threatened species include things you can buy cheaply online for the garden.

There is a big push on to draw attention to species extinction in the run up to a Biodiversity Jamboree in Japan.

But something struck me as odd as I listened to the radio this morning. There was a lot of talk of `extinctions' of thousands of plants, as turned up by a new report from Kew Gardens. When I opened the newspapers (online), I found that actually the report was not about extinctions, but about threats of extinction. Then I looked at the list cited by the Times and Guardian. Right there at the top:

Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) - critically endangered

Peculiar human sex differences

I am now writing a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal called Mind and Matter. Here's the first one.

Recently, the psychologist David Buss's team at the University of Texas at Austin reported that men, when looking for one-night stands, check out women's bodies. Or as they put it, "men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts, but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating contexts."

Like many results in evolutionary psychology, this may seem blindingly obvious, but that does not stop it from being controversial. Earlier this month a neuroscientist in Britain, Gina Rippon, lambasted what she called the "neurohype" about sex differences: "There may be some very small differences between the genders, but the similarities are far, far greater."

Recycling clothes and houses

A neat insight from Don Boudreaux

From Cafe Hayek comes this:

When materials are worth recycling, markets for their reuse naturally arise. For materials with no natural markets for their reuse, the benefits of recycling are less than its costs - and, therefore, government efforts to promote such recycling waste resources.

Everyday experience should teach us this fact. The benefits of recycling clothing, for example, are large enough to prompt us to buy costly clothes-recycling machines that we routinely use to recycle for tomorrow the clothes we wear today. We call these machines "washers and dryers." And when American families no longer want their clothing, organizations such as Goodwill come by to gather the discarded garments to recycle them for use by poor people.

How to be open-minded without your brains falling out

The limits of scepticism

The brilliant philosophical writer (and my old friend) Anthony Gottlieb has been ruminating on whether science should be sceptical about itself.

There is no full-blown logical paradox here. If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism-all of whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be-they understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it helps to keep quiet about how often you are wrong.

Very true. On scientific questions where I am orthodox (eg, alternative medicine, evolution), I notice that the heretics use precisely the same sorts of arguments as I do in those fields where I am a sceptic (eg, climate projections, crop circles). There seems to be no easy answer to the problem: when should you go for a heresy.

Monbiot caught out

The perished credibility of George

Update: George Monbiot has made it clear that he did not ask for the deletions of comments referred to below, but that the Guardian moderators made the deletions for legal reasons and without his knowledge. But he still fails to take the opportunity to discuss the evidence that Williams and Niggurath produce.

George Monbiot is in trouble. He has already had to make an apology for his mistakes in an attack on Richard North.

He's swinging like a weathervane on issues like vegetarianism and feed-in tariffs.

Crowd accelerated innovation

Chris Anderson's brilliant talk at TED Global is now on the web.

Among the take-home messages:

- that innovation is accelerating thanks to the ability to compare and combine. Dance is a great example.

Hope springs in Wells

Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not article itself) this morning to publicise a talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a church. Will I get to use the pulpit?

``If you write a book saying the world is getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric. But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy future for people and their planet.

Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.

A paradox that is no

How come the richer we get the less we die?

Ben Pile at Climate Resistance has a nice essay on the `environmentalist's paradox'. This is the superficially puzzling -- and to many greens, infuriating -- fact that people keep on getting healthier and wealthier when really they should, in all decency, be suffering terribly because of the deterioration of the earth's ecosystems.

Pile's starting point is a new paper that grapples wih the paradox. It puts forward four explanations

(1) We have measured well-being incorrectly;

Budiansky and local food

Nothing is more vulnerable than self-reliance'

Stephen Budiansky's two essays on the `locavore' movement, one in the New York Times and one on his blog, have received quite a bit of attention already. They are remarkably fine rants not least because Steve (an old friend) is not some pontificator. He actually grows a lots of his own food on his small farm in Virginia. He knows what he is talking about. And yet, like me, he concludes that

Twice, while being interviewed about my book I have been told by the interviewer that it is a bad thing that I can buy green beans from Africa `because the food should be kept in Africa to feed people there'. The sheer ignorance of this statement, let alone its patronising tone, left me open-mouthed on both occasions. Think how many calories of wheat an African bean exporter can afford to buy for the price he receives for the few calories in his beans. He is growing the most valuable crop he can so that he can afford to import things of greater value to him than surplus beans.

Distant food is efficient, sustainable, safe and moral.

More for less

Progress in portable music

Russ Roberts, over at Cafe Hayek, has this lovely hymn to progress:

In 1979,Sony introduced the Walkman, the first portable music player. It weighed 14 ounces and cost $200. It could play a cassette that could hold about 90 minutes of music. It was a little bigger than a cassette. It was pretty ugly.

A new nano from Apple was announced yesterday. It weighs less than an ounce. The 8GB model is $149. It holds about 60 hours of music. It is smaller than a matchbook. It is very beautiful.

Intolerance breeds intolerance

The polarisation of environmental science

Steve Budiansky has a good piece at his Liberal Curmudgeon blog. He argues -- and I agree -- that heavy handed legal attacks on climate scientists, like Attorney general Ken Cucinelli's in Virginia, are reprehensible, but that to some extent environmental scientists are reaping what they have sown, for example in their reaction to Bjorn Lomborg's 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist:

Environmental scientists responded with a determination to stamp out this heresy that would have done Torquemada or Khomeini proud. A dozen scientists served Cambridge University Press with a demand that it cease printing the book, fire the editor who oversaw it, and "convene a tribunal" to investigate the book's "errors." Nature ran a truly egregious review by the scientists Stuart Pimm and Jeffrey Harvey attributing to Lomborg ridiculous statements that he never even remotely made in the book or anywhere else. And Pimm and Harvey along with other members of the environmental goon squad lodged a complaint with the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty - a legal body of the state - alleging that Lomborg had committed "scientific misconduct" for having reached conclusions that Pimm and Harvey did not like.

Who's the establishment now?

How climate converted the greens to the argument from authority

Walter Russell Mead has a powerful essay in the American Interest online about how the environmental movement suddenly turned into the establishment. Have you noticed the irony of being told to shut up and trust the experts by the likes of Greenpeace? Nothing is quite so amusing about the modern environmental movement as its sudden volte-face on the argument from authority: from `don't believe the experts' to `do as you are told'.

I suppose one should not be surprised. Every movement, from Christianity to Bolshevism, had the same transformation. How the church went from being a radical insurgent organization that gave a voice to the poor to one that insisted on papal infallibility without a backward glance always struck me as entertaining.

Mead argues that the entire environmental movement was founded on not trusting experts: