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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: 12-2011

When less means more

Here is the Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal, published on 24th December.

Which American city has more inhabitants: San Antonio or San Diego? More Germans than Americans get the answer right (San Diego). What about Hanover or Bielefeld? More Americans than Germans get the answer right (Hanover). In each case, the foreigners pick the right answer by choosing the city they have heard more about, assuming that it's bigger. The natives know too much and let the excess information get in the way.

This is an example of a "heuristic," a highfalutin name for a "rule of thumb" or "gut feeling." Most business people and physicians privately admit that many of their decisions are based on intuition rather than on detailed cost-benefit analysis. In public, of course, it's different. To stand up in court and say you made a decision based on what your thumb or gut told you is to invite damages. So both business people and doctors go to some lengths to suppress or disguise the role that intuition plays in their work.

Don't be such a silly Higgs Boson

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on metaphors for the Higgs Boson.

In 1993 a British science minister, William Waldegrave, was sitting on a train reading the speech that his staff had prepared for him for a physics conference. Finding the draft "unspeakably dull," he decided instead to challenge the assembled scientists to answer, on a single sheet of paper, the question: "What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" He pledged to the winner a bottle of vintage Champagne.

Even before its existence was at last tentatively suggested by an experiment this week, many people had heard of the Higgs boson, the mysterious manifestation of the field that causes matter to have mass, according to a theory minted in 1964. Yet almost nobody, myself included, knows what a Higgs boson is, or at least can give a sensible description of it. This is a serious handicap if Higgsism, as I hereby christen it, is to have an impact on human culture, let alone on technology.

Bioenergy versus the planet

Prospect has published my essay on bioenergy, in which my research left me astonished at the environmental and economic harm that is being perpetrated. Biomass and biofuels are not carbon neutral, can't displace much fossil fuel, require huge subsidies, increase hunger and directly or indirectly cause rain forest destruction. Apart from that, they're fine... Here's the text: From a satellite, the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic looks like the edge of a carpet. While the Dominican Republic is green with forest, Haiti is brown: 98 per cent deforested. One of the chief reasons is that Haiti depends on bioenergy. Wood-mostly in the form of charcoal-is used not just for cooking but for industry as well, providing 70 per cent of Haiti's energy. In contrast, in the Dominican Republic, the government imports oil and subsidises propane gas for cooking, which takes the pressure off forests.

Haiti's plight is a reminder there is nothing new about bioenergy. A few centuries ago, Britain got most of its energy from firewood and hay. Over the years the iron industry moved from Sussex to the Welsh borders to Cumberland and then Sweden in an increasingly desperate search for wood to fire its furnaces. Cheap coal and oil then effectively allowed the gradual reforestation of the country. Britain's forest cover-12 per cent-is three times what it was in 1919 and will soon rival the levels recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086.

Yet if the government has its way, we will instead emulate Haiti. In 2007, Tony Blair signed up to a European Union commitment that Britain would get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Apparently neither he nor his officials noticed this target was for "energy" not "electricity." Since much energy is used for heating, which wind, solar, hydro and the like cannot supply, this effectively committed Britain to using lots of wood and crops for both heat and electricity to hit that target. David Cameron and Chris Huhne, anxious to seem the "greenest of them all," dare not weaken the target, despite its unattainability.

Cheap energy means jobs

I have published the following editorial in City AM, a British financial newspaper: WHEN is a job not a job? Answer: when it is a green job. Jobs in an industry that raises the price of energy effectively destroy jobs elsewhere; jobs in an industry that cuts the cost of energy create extra jobs elsewhere.

The entire argument for green jobs is a version of Frederic Bastiat's broken-window fallacy. The great nineteenth century French economist pointed out that breaking a window may provide work for the glazier, but takes work from the tailor, because the window owner has to postpone ordering a new suit because he has to pay for the window.

You will hear claims from Chris Huhne, the anti-energy secretary, and the green-greed brigade that trousers his subsidies for their wind and solar farms, about how many jobs they are creating in renewable energy. But since every one of these jobs is subsidised by higher electricity bills and extra taxes, the creation of those jobs is a cost to the rest of us. The anti-carbon and renewable agenda is not only killing jobs by closing steel mills, aluminium smelters and power stations, but preventing the creation of new jobs at hairdressers, restaurants and electricians by putting up their costs and taking money from their customers' pockets.

Africa needs biotech crops

In a strongly worded editorial in Science magazine this week, Calestous Juma, the director of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa program at Harvard's Kennedy School, called for a government-led initiative to introduce biotechnology into Africa. "Major international agencies such as the United Nations have persistently opposed expanding biotechnology to regions most in need of its societal and economic benefits," he wrote.

Genetic modification has had a huge impact on agriculture worldwide. More than 15 million farmers now plant GM crops on almost 370 million acres, boosting yields by 10% to 25%. Despite opponents' fears that the technology would poison people, spread superweeds and entrench corporate monopolies, it's now clear that the new crops have reduced not only hunger but pesticide use, carbon emissions, collateral damage to biodiversity and rain-forest destruction.

Yet, while much of North and South America, Australia and Asia are expanding the use of GM crops, only three African countries have adopted them (a further four are conducting trials). Mr. Juma argues that Africa is the place that most needs a boost from biotech: Many of the continent's farmers cannot afford to buy pesticides, so corn and cotton that are genetically insect-resistant could make a big difference there. Over the past five decades, while Asian yields have quadrupled, African yields have barely budged.

The market as the antidote to capitalism

Here's an article I wrote, published by The Times this week.

The anti-capitalists, now more than 50 days outside St Paul's, have a point:

capitalism is proving unfair. But I would like to try to persuade them that the reason is because it is not free-market enough. (Good luck, I hear you cry.) The market, when allowed to flourish, tears apart monopoly and generates freedom and fairness better than any other human institution. Today's private sector, by contrast, is increasingly dominated by companies that are privileged by government through cosy contract, soft subsidy, convenient regulation and crony conversation. That is why it is producing such unfair outcomes.

Perchance to dream

My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is on the purpose of dreams:

Chancing last week on a study about the calming effect of dreams on people with post-traumatic stress disorder, I decided to read recent research on dreams. When I looked at this topic about 20 years ago, it was clear that our ignorance of the purpose of dreaming was almost total, notwithstanding the efforts of Sigmund Freud, Francis Crick and other fine minds. Is that still true?

To my delight, the answer seems to be no. Some ingenious experiments have replaced general ignorance with specific and intriguing ignorance (as is science's habit). We now know enough to know what it is we do not know about dreams.

Coping with only six billion

Here's a column in The Times, imagining what the world might look like if the UN's low-fertilty scenario comes true.

The peak is in sight. Even as the population passes seven billion, the growth rate of the world population has halved since the 1960s. The United Nations Population Division issues high, medium and low forecasts. Inevitably the high one (fifteen billion people by 2100) gets more attention than the low one (six billion and falling). But given that the forecasts have generally proved too high for the past few decades, let us imagine for a moment what might happen if that proves true again.

Africa is currently the continent with the highest birth rates, but it also has the fastest economic growth. The past decade has seen Asian-tiger-style growth all across Africa. HIV is in retreat, malaria in decline. When child mortality fell and economic growth boomed like this in Europe, Latin America and Asia, the result was a rapid fall in the birth rate. For fertility to fall, contraception provides the means, but economic growth and public health provide the motive. So the current slow decline in Africa's birth rate may turn into a plummet.