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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: 11-2010

Arm-wrestling with Bill Gates

A debate in the Wall Street Journal

The coming dash for gas

Britain is burying its head in the sand about a new technology that is good for the environment

Update: I have misled the reader about the quantity of neodymium in a wind turbine magnet. The magnet is not pure neodymium, but an alloy of Nd, iron and Boron. So there's a lot less than 2.5 tonnes of Nd itself in a 2.5MW turbine magnet. There's still plenty of it, though. Hat tip Tim Worstall.

2nd Update: I am told 270kg of Nd per megawatt is about right, though it will vary with different kinds of magnet. That means about 675kg of Nd in a 2.5MW turbine. Hat tip Alan Bates.

Ecosystems are dynamic

A response from scientists on ocean acidifciation

We are getting somewhere. There is a long response to my Times article from ocean acidification scientists here. This makes me rather happy. The response confirms the accuracy of my main points. I have sent the following response to Nature's website, which carried a report on this matter:

I am glad to have my main point confirmed by the reply: that there is in fact no evidence for net biological harm likely as a result of realistic changes in ocean pH. This is a huge and welcome change from the exaggerated rhetoric that has been used on this topic.

The reply also confirms the accuracy of virtually all of my factual assertions about the likely change in pH, the natural variation in pH and other issues, including the involvement of a Greenpeace ship in a research project. Only my interpretation is challenged.

Whether wild weather causes innovation

Neither Neanderthals nor a volatile climate caused innovation 42,000 years ago

On his blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien Riel-Salvatore discusses his recent paper about Neanderthals and innovation:

I'm quoted [in the press release] as saying, among other things, that this study helps 'rehabilitate' Neanderthals by showing that they were able to develop some of the accoutrements of behavioral modernity independent of any contact with modern humans. While I've caught a bit of flak from some friends and colleagues for that turn of phrase, I stand by my statement -this study helps to cast Neanderthals in a much more positive light than they have been for a long while now.

In my book, I argue that Neanderthals --though highly intelligent -- did not show a tendency to innovate, because they did not show a tendency to exchange (their artefacts never come from far away), and this kept their toolkit much the same till the end. The discovery of Neanderthals innovating would therefore be a blow to my argument.

Human and natural fertility

Mankind enhances natural productivity as well as eats it

I have just found at Spiked Online Brendan O'Neill's superb recent essay on whether the earth is finite, and I heartily recommend it. Here's a sample:

Over the past 200 years, Malthusians have tended to look at people as simply the users-up of scarce resources. They have tended to view nature as the producer of things and mankind as the consumer of things. And their view of people as little more than consumers - almost as parasites - inevitably leads to them seeing human beings as the cause of every modern ill, and therefore reducing the number of human beings as the solution to every modern ill. Their focus on finiteness means they conceive of humanity as a kind of bovine force, hoovering up everything that it comes across.

I read this while sitting in a hotel room at San Francisco airport. Huge jets queue for take off in full view of my window. I am in the middle of a great conurbation. But between me and the jets lies a stretch of water, an arm of the Bay itself. And the water is a bird watcher's paradise. There are rafts of ducks such as buffleheads and wigeon. There are pelicans, grebes and two speces of gull. Along the shore there are great white and little egrets, willets, whimbrels, grey plovers, stints, dowitchers, avocets, yellow-legs and tight flocks of sandpipers. Sea lions cruise a litle further out, and an osprey has just plunged into the water after a fish.

On the meaning of the word optimism

This is not the best of all possible worlds

Here is my latest Wall Street Journal column. It led me into the etymology of the word `optimism' and the realisation that at first it meant almost the opposite of what we now mean by it, namely that the world was at its `optimum' and could not improve.

A Haitian who survived the January earthquake and has so far escaped cholera recently told a reporter that this month's Hurricane Tomas wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, "thank God." I know it's often just a verbal tic, but it has always struck me as odd that people who survive natural disasters thank God for saving them but rarely blame Him for the disaster.

It has been quite a decade for natural disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Burma's cyclone, Pakistan's floods, China's quake. Only once to my knowledge has there been much media debate about whether these disasters were "acts of God"-after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, perhaps because it happened on the day after Christmas. In any case, I always felt the phrase applied better to 9/11, considering the motivation of the terrorists.

PETM theory

Tropical forests became more diverse during the warm episode of 55m years ago.

A new paper in Science casts further doubt on the usefulness of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a warning of what we face from man-made carbon emissions. Tropical rain forests became more diverse, not less, during the warm spell.

The paleontologist who made this discovery told Science News:

"We were expecting to find rapid extinction, a total change in the forest," says study leader Carlos Jaramillo, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama. "What we found was just the opposite - a very fast addition of many new species, and a huge spike in the diversity of tropical plants."

Let a thousand flowers bloom

Only possible in a market economy

Don Boudreaux has a lovely essay in the Christian Science Monitor (interest declaration: he mentions my book) in which he makes the point people often miss about markets, that they encourage diversity rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:

Contrast the multitude of different market-generated and voluntarily adopted ideas with the ideas of progressives - for example, progressives' idea thatgovernment must regulate the fatcontent of foods.

Each of us can decide how much we value, say,juicy burgersand double-dark chocolate ice cream compared to how much we value a trim waistline and longer life expectancy. And each of us values these benefits differently. The dietary choices that I make for myself are right for me, but I cannot know if they are right for anyone else. Progressives, in contrast, falsely assume there's a single correct metric, for the whole country, that determines for everyone how to trade off the satisfaction of eatingtasty but fatty foodsfor the benefit of being healthier.

David MacKay's letter

Here is the letter that David MacKay sent me following my article in The Times and to which I replied.

(I have gone to weblinks for his charts and in one case come up with a slightly different version -- the sea ice graph I could not find the exact one he included so I have found another from the same source which has more years on it than his version, but it's the same data and the same source.) Update: all graphs now correct!

Victory on acidification!

Three fellows of the Royal Society concede my arguments

There is a hilarious letter in today's Times from three FRS professors about my recent artilce on ocean acidification.

Despite conceding the factual truth of my article in detail, they tell me to brush up on chemistry then give no examples of me getting anything wrong.

They concede my point that any shift of acidity will be within natural ranges. Thanks. But say it could be much larger `in the future'. No numbers, note. They mean in several centuries.

The best shot?

Are Arctic ice and the PETM really the best arguments for dangerous climate change?

UPDATE: David MacKay's letter is now up in a separate post here

Some weeks ago I wrote an article for The Times about why I no longer find persuasive the IPCC's arguments that today's climate change is unprecedented, fast and dangerous.

Sinners that repent

Some greens have seen the light on nuclear power and GM food. It's a start.

Update: I'd like to add one thing to the story below. Stewart Brand, who I know and admire, played a prominent part in the Channel 4 film. He's not a `convert' to these views. He has always been strongly pro-GM food and mildly pro-nuclear. So my comments here were not aimed at him.

Last night saw a TV programme in the UK called What the Green Movement Got Wrong, in which various greens admitted that they had done terrible harm by opposing nuclear power and GM food and indoor DDT. It was a pretty good programme, especially on Chernobyl.

Acid oceans and acid rain

Learning lessons from the 1980s

I have an article in The Times today (behind a paywall) on ocean acidification. Here's the gist:

Today in Beijing an alliance of scientists called Oceans United will present the United Nations with a request for $5 billion a year to be spent on monitoring the oceans. High among their concerns is ocean acidification, which `could make it harder for animals such as lobsters, crabs, shellfish, coral or plankton to build protective shells'.

As opinion polls reveal that global warming is losing traction on the public imagination, environmental pressure groups have been cranking the engine on this `other carbon dioxide problem'. `Time is running out' wrote two activists in Scientific American in August, `to limit acidification before it irreparably harms the food chain on which the world's oceans - and people - depend.'

Sauce for the goose

Greens who like to make unsubstantiated claims then demand the prosecution of others for the same offence

I have just sent this letter to the Guardian:

In response to Donald Brown's call for climate scepticism to be classified as a crime against humanity (1st November),

in which he said `We may not have a word for this type of crime yet, but the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity':

The tyranny of causation

Here (a bit late) is my latest Wall Street Journal column, on epigenetic inheritance

In the debate over whether our fates as individuals are ruled by nature or nurture-that is, by innate qualities or personal experience-one of the most baffling features is the way the nurture advocates manage to cast themselves as the great foes of determinism. "Genes don't determine who we are," they insist-all the while positing that environmental causes often do. Remember how some Freudians tried to blame autism, schizophrenia and even homosexuality on the way parents treated their children? True, they claimed these effects were treatable, but so are many genetic problems. I wear glasses to correct a partly genetic tendency to myopia.

Nor has environmental determinism escaped moral stain. When Soviet agriculture was forced to obey crank theories that environmental conditioning rather than breeding could determine the frost-resistance of wheat-not coincidentally echoing the notion that human nature could be remade by communism-the result was famine.