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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: 10-2010

Circular reasoning and species extinction

Stephen Budiansky diagnoses a logical flaw

Over at LIberal Curmudgeon, Steve Budiansky has a good insight into a subject he knows well, ever since writing the book Nature's Keepers: claims about species extinction.

The whole science behind the extinction crisis is riddled withcircular reasoning, but this is an especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it. (The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened on the IUCNRed Listwere presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat loss)

Like Steve, I care about extinctions. In my youth I worked on three different projects to try to diagnose and arrest the decline of rare birds in the Indian subcontinent. But like me he fears that mega-political statements and exaggerated claims will only do that cause harm:

Plankton not bothered so why are we?

Yet another study debunks the ocean acidification scare

Further evidence that ocean acidification is a non-event, scientifically, even while being a big event for scientists financially:

Thus, both of the investigated coastal plankton communities were unaffected by twenty-first century expected changes in pH and free CO2. This may be explained by the large seasonal, and even daily, changes in pH seen in productive marine ecosystems, and the corresponding need for algae to be pH-tolerant.


Rare earths versus the Earth

Another environmental cost of wind turbines

Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject, rare earths.

Rare-earth minerals are the 15 elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table -- known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights; lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there simply isn't a viable substitute.

In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.

A puzzle

An acrostic challenge

Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve Budiansky).

Quis custodiet?

How to regulate the psychology of regulators

My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is about the psychology of bureaucracy. just as we need to understand the human proclivities that give rise to booms and busts in markets, so we need to understand the human proclivities that motivate officials. Here are five identified by Slavisa Tasic, starting with `illusions of competence':

Psychologists have shown that we systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr. Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that they knew with confidence things that were false.

The issue of action bias is better known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem worse.

The difference between reciprocity and exchange

Plus other matters aired on the radio

Here's anhour long conversationI did on Econtalk with economist and novelist Russ Roberts about trade, prosperity and Adam Smith. It includes a discussion of why animals can manage reciprocity but not, apparently, exchange.

Refugee ideas

Political plurality allows innovations to flourish

My latest Wall Street Journal column, Triumph of the Idea Smugglers, argues that from time to time in history good ideas need rescuing from bad regimes. If Thales of Miletus had not infected Greece with rationalism after travelling in Egypt, and if 1700 years later, Leonardo Fibonacci had not infected Italy with Hindu numerals after growing up in what is now Algeria -- then these ideas might not have flourished.

The secret of human progress is and always has been to keep ideas moving, both so that they meet and mate with new ideas and so that they escape suppression at home. As the philosopher David Hume was the first to observe, China suffers from a geographic disadvantage in this respect: It is too easy to unify. When disunited it grows rich and innovative. But time and again emperors, from the Ming to the Maoist, have been able to establish tyrannical centralized rule and shut down trade, diversity and experiment.

Europe, with its centrifugal rivers, its peninsulas and mountain ranges, is very hard to unify by conquest. Ask Constantine, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler. So European states could harbor commercial, intellectual and religious refugees from each other, keeping flames alive. The history of technology is littered with examples of Europeans who fled from one jurisdiction to another to a find a more congenial or generous ruler: Columbus, Gutenberg, Voltaire, Einstein.

Technology 1 Therapy 0 in Chile

Market innovation helped the miners; counselling was counter-productive

Today I read two contrasting articles about the wonderful rescue of the Chilean miners that I strongly recommend, even though both are a few days old.

The first, by Brendan O'Neill, in Spiked (hat tip: Frank Stott), reveals the degree to which the miners helped themselves to cope by defying the psychological experts 700 metres above them.

The inconvenient truth is that the 33 miners survived underground not as a result of psychological advice and intervention but by sometimes rebellingagainst the psychologists who kept a watchful eye on their every move. The real story of the Chilean miners, for anyone who cares to look, is that the interventions of the various wings of the trauma industry often make things worse rather than better, and people are mostly happier and healthier without them.

The cat of liberty is out of the hierarchical bag

Is modern growth a materialist or an ideological achievement?

Continuing the debate about the industrial revolution with Deirdre McCloskey

Here's her reply to me

...We agree at least that innovation is the key. That's a very, very important agreement. Joel Mokyr, Jack Goldstone, and our own Greg Clark join Matt Ridley, Robert Allen, and me in affirming it. It sets us Innovators off from most economists and historians, who are Accumulators. We say that the modern world got rich by (at a minimum) 1500% percent compared with 1800 not, as the sadly mistaken Accumulators say, because of capital accumulation, or exploitation of the third world, or the expansion of foreign trade. The world got rich by inventing cheap steel, electric lights, marine insurance, reinforced concrete, coffee shops, saw mills, newspapers, automatic looms, cheap paper, modern universities, the transistor, cheap porcelain, corporations, rolling mills, liberation for women, railways.

The three-dimensional photocopier

What characteristics would extraterrestrial life have?

Here's a video of a discussion I had with Richard Dawkins about `life' back in June: extra-terrestrial life, artificial life and synthetic life.

Why did the industrial revolution happen?

Or rather, why did it not peter out?

At Cato Unbound, there is a set of essays on the subject in response to Deirdre McCloskey, one of which is by me, others by Greg Clark and Jonathan Feinstein.

I champion the theory that coal was crucial, because it showed increasing rather than diminshing returns (the more people mined, the cheaper it got) and it amplified productivity and commerce. But there is more to the story than that.

Where are the genes?

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal

On the failed promise of genomics.

Is it because common ailments are caused by many different rare genetic variants?

Collateral beneficence

GM crops benefit non-GM crops nearby

Do you remember how, back in the days when genetically modified crops were as vilifed as climate sceptics were until recently, one of the arguments deployed against them was that they would `contaminate' neighbouring farms with their genetically modified pollen? This was one justification for a total ban, as there still is in Britain, rather than a policy of live and let live.

Now comes evidence of a different kind of collateral contamination by GM crops. Turns out GM maize contaminates neighbouring farms with extra profits. The fact that farmers are growing insect-resistant GM crops raises yields for those who are growing conventional maize, because it reduces the number of pests that are about.

Predicted nightmares almost never come true

Remember how vilifed were the IVF pioneers

Robin Marantz Henig hits the nail on the head in the New York Times today:

The history of in vitro fertilization demonstrates not only how easily the public will accept new technology once it's demonstrated to be safe, but also that the nightmares predicted during its development almost never come true. This is a lesson to keep in mind as we debate whether to pursue other promising yet controversial medical advances, from genetic engineering to human cloning.

The Nobel prize for Robert Edwards is long overdue. It should not be forgotten what a gauntlet he and Patrick Steptoe had to run when they pioneered IVF. Here's a taste, from an article in The Times in 2003:

Connecting human islands

Pacific fishing technology and the catallaxy

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

An odd thing about people, compared with other animals, is that the more of us there are, the more we thrive. World population has doubled in my lifetime, but the world's income has octupled. The richest places on Earth are among the most densely populated.

By contrast, it's a fair bet that if you took a few million rabbits and let them loose on Manhattan island, they would starve, fight, sicken and generally peter out. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it can continue forever or not, you cannot deny that when people come together in dense swarms, they often get richer.


An advert that advocates blowing up people who disagree with you


This video was made by an organisation funded partly by the UK taxpayer.