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My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
This Halloween, the United Nations declared over the summer, a
baby will be born somewhere on Earth who will tip the world's
population over seven billion for the first time. Truly do
international bureaucrats have the power of prophecy!
The precision is bunk, of course, or rather a public-relations
gimmick. According to demographers, nobody knows the exact
population of the world to within 100 million. (Incidentally, the
record-setting baby will not be the seven billionth human being to
have existed, as some press reports have implied-more like the 108
Sad news of the death of John McCarthy, former professor of
Computer Science at Stanford University, who coined the very term
"artificial intelligence" in 1955 and invented the LISP programming
language in 1958.
McCarthy was a true "progressive" in that he appreciated the rapid
and dramatic improvements in human living standards brought about
by innovation. It was from McCarthy's website that I first learned
of Thomas Babington Macaulay's remarks, in the Edinburgh Review,
that I often quote -- "We cannot absolutely prove that those
are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point,
that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and
with just as much apparent reason ... On what principle is it that,
when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect
nothing but deterioration before us".
This alerted me to the startling fact that even 200 years ago,
when human living standards had barely begun to improve,
intellectuals were already lamenting the imminent and inevitable
end of that improvement. They were wrong then and they are wrong
Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, has a long article entitled "Just Too Many?", arguing
that the world needs to end its taboo on discussing population and
population control. This is of course pegged on the United Nations'
somewhat gimmicky announcement that the world will pass seven
billion people on 31st October. Thugh it is generally
a good essay, like so much of the coverage, Maddox's article fails
sufficiently to distinguish the top-down approach to population,
which did indeed become taboo after 1994, and the bottom-up one,
which did not. The bottom up one focuses on economic development
and public health, which together drive down birth rates by
enabling women to plan smaller families rather than keep breeding
heirs and spares. The top-down approach targets birth rates
themselves. I would argue that its cruelties should make us
cautious before returning to it. I have sent the following letter
to the editor at Prospect:
Your population cover story makes a
good case that public-sector experts effectively turned their backs
on the issue following the intervention of an unusual mixture of
conservatives and feminists at the Cairo conference in 1994. Was
this silence entirely a bad thing? Do not underestimate the harm
done by the coercion recommended in the 1970s by western
intellectuals -- and implemented. Egged on by Western
governments and pressure groups, coerced sterilisation became a
pattern all across Asia in the 1970s. Chinese women were forcibly
taken from their homes to be sterilised. Cheered on by Robert
McNamara's World Bank, Sanjay Gandhi ran a vast campaign of rewards
and coercion to force 8 million poor Indians to accept vasectomies.
Yet we now know that bottom-up forces, chiefly public health
improvements and economic growth, generally reduce birth rates even
faster than top-down coercion (which bodes well for Africa with its
recent rapid economic growth). The availability of contraception is
necessary but not sufficient. Maybe the inattention of the
international quangocracy is not always a bad thing.
After writing this I came across an unusually (for the
BBC) well-researched and well-informed essay on this subject by
Mike Gallagher on the BBC, which makes the same point in greater
detail. Some extracts:
he Australian has published my review of Donna Laframboise's
The review prompted a tweet from Michael Mann that I was wrong
to say the IPCC had dropped the hockey stick. Here's a source: judge for yourself.
Here's the text of the review:
Chris Huhne, the UK energy secretary, boasts that wind farms and
other renewable energy schemes will create 9,000 jobs this year.
Since they are all subsidised, each one is in effect sponsored by a
newly unemployed person elsewhere in the economy.
Shale gas already supports 140,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone, up
from about zero in 2007. This is without subsidy; in fact, the
reverse -- hefty tax revenue. Pennsylvania's population is
one-fifth of Britain's.
From The Economist comes news that does not
surprise me and reinforces my view, aired in mydebate with Bill Gates, that pessimism about
Africa is overdone and trade is transforming Africa for the
AFRICA has made a phenomenal leap in
the last decade. Its economy is growing faster than that of any
other continent. Foreign investment is at an all-time high; Senegal
has lower borrowing costs than Ireland. The idea of a black African
billionaire-once outlandish except for kleptocratic dictators-is
commonplace now. At the same time an expanding African middle class
(similar in size to those in India and China) is sucking in
consumer goods. Poverty, famine and disease are still a problem but
less so than in the late 20th century, not least thanks to advances
in combating HIV and malaria.
Africa's mood is more optimistic than at any time since the
independence era of the 1960s. This appears to be a real turning
point for the continent. About a third of its growth is due to the
(probably temporary) rise in commodity prices. Some countries have
been clever enough to use profits to build new infrastructure. The
arrival of China on the scene-as investor and a low-cost
builder-has accelerated this trend. Other Asian economies are
following its lead, from Korea to Turkey.
Nicely put by Michael Barone:
...A similar but more peaceable fate is
befalling believers in what I think can be called the religion of
the global warming alarmists.
They have an unshakeable faith that
manmade carbon emissions will produce a hotter climate, causing
multiple natural disasters. Their insistence that we can be
absolutely certain this will come to pass is based not on science
-- which is never fully settled, witness the recent experiments
that may undermine Albert Einstein's theory of relativity -- but on
something very much like religious faith.
Here is a letter I sent to the editor and deputy editor of The
A comment on the piece
by James Astill about the Berkeley temperature study. Most of the article
is a sensible discussion of a deadly dull piece of statistics that
changes nothing. But it's topped and tailed with claims that this
leaves little room for doubters, and that the warming is "fast".
Both these conclusions are badly wrong.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal is the extraordinary story of modern chicken genetics.
Of all the amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals in the world,
the most abundant species is probably the chicken. At any one time,
approximately 20 billion cocks and hens are alive on the planet
(though never for long).
Donna Laframboise is a journalist and civil libertarian in
Toronto, who made her name as a fearless investigative reporter in
the 1990s. She has recently been investigating the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has come up with
startling results about how its reports are compiled. For those of
us who took the IPCC's evaluations of climate at face value when
they came out -- I know I did -- and thought that they were based
on an impartial and careful process that relied on peer reviewed
evidence, these revelations are shocking. Her book The Delinquent Teenager is now available on
kindle and will shortly be in paperback. It is one of the most
important pieces of investigative journalism in recent years. It
demolishes the argument that we need the mainstream media because
the blogosphere will never do the hard work of investigative
journalism. The opposite is true.
Here I take the liberty of extracting one fairly lengthy tale
from the book, but there are many more:
The IPCC's transparency shortcomings have
been obvious for some time. In 2005 Steve McIntyre, a Canadian with
a PhD Masters degree in mathematics and a flair
for statistics, was invited by the IPCC to be an expert reviewer
for what would become the 2007 edition of the Climate Bible.
McIntyre, who writes theClimateAudit.org blog, was by
then a well-known IPCC critic, so this invitation was a promising
sign. But it didn't take long for matters to go off the rails.
Here's my latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall
Writing about science carries the risk of embarrassment.
If you champion a theory and it gets disproved, you have some
explaining to do. So it is nice when a theory you choose does win
Here's an article I wrote for this week's Spectator about
UK energy policy. Wind must give way to gas before it ruins us all,
and our landscapes.
Which would you rather have in the view from your
house? A thing about the size of a domestic garage, or eight towers
twice the height of Nelson's column with blades noisily thrumming
the air. The energy they can produce over ten years is similar:
eight wind turbines of 2.5-megawatts (working at roughly 25%
capacity) roughly equal the output of an average Pennsylvania shale
gas well (converted to electricity at 50% efficiency) in its first
Difficult choice? Let's make it easier. The gas well can be
hidden in a hollow, behind a hedge. The eight wind turbines must be
on top of hills, because that is where the wind blows, visible for
up to 40 miles. And they require the construction of new pylons
marching to the towns; the gas well is connected by an underground
Fenbeagle has done a cartoon featuring a rational optimist...
From My latest Mind and Matter Column at he Wall
The science of evolutionary psychology has flourished in recent
years by asking "why" as well as "how" questions about animal and
human behavior, and answering them with historical
I have a book review in the Wall Street Journal of
Robert Laughlin's book Powering the Future.
These are the first two paragraphs:
Many environmentalists believe that carbon
dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will cause a climate
crisis toward the end of this century. Environmentalists also raise
the alarm that we have reached "peak oil" and that fossil fuels
will run out by the middle of the century. That both views cannot
be true rarely seems to bother those who hold them. Either
consequence, we're told, makes the world's conversion to a
low-carbon energy system an urgent matter.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on
metaphors and analogies:
Monkeys can reason by using analogy, it seems. In an experiment
recently reported in the journal Psychological Science, baboons in
a lab proved capable of realizing that a pair of oval shapes is
"like" a pair of square shapes and "unlike" a pair made of two
different shapes. This finding suggests that you can have analogy
Fascinating interview with the founder of Continental
Resources Harold Hamm in the Wall Street Journal.
Harold Hamm calculates that if
Washington would allow more drilling permits for oil and natural
gas on federal lands and federal waters, the government could over
time raise $18 trillion in royalties. That's more than the U.S.
The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota are proving to be huge.
possibly 24 billion barrels.
I have an op-ed article in the Times today, arguing that
there is light at the end of the tunnel for the world's and the
British economy: the long-term gains from living within our means
Matthew Parris hit a nerve last Saturday with his argument that
we have lived beyond our means and must now expect to have to work
harder and be 25 per cent poorer. It resonated with me as well as
many readers. He cut through all the detail of debt, default and
deficits to extract an essential truth. The West has run a pyramid
scheme, spending borrowed capital to boost current living
standards. From pensions to mortgages, from public spending to
consumer extravagance, the reckoning has arrived.