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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: 10-2011

From quantity to quality

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

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 billionth.)

John McCarthy

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 now.

Bottom up beats top down at seven billion

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:

Brass farthing

he Australian has published my review of Donna Laframboise's book here.

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:

Two numbers

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.

Africa's Boom

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 better:

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.

All the trappings

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.

No change makes big news

Here is a letter I sent to the editor and deputy editor of The Economist.

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.

The genetics of bigger chickens

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).

The delinquent teenager

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.

Sex and the Red Queen

Here's my latest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:

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 the race.

Gas against wind

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 ten years.

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 pipe.

We will ROC you

Fenbeagle has done a cartoon featuring a rational optimist...

Hypocrisy and self deception

From My latest Mind and Matter Column at he Wall Street Journal:

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 explanations.

After carbon

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.

Monkey metaphors

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 without language.

One law for some

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. national debt.

The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota are proving to be huge. possibly 24 billion barrels.

The light at the end of the tunnel

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 are huge:

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.