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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
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.
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
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
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.
I have published the following editorial in City AM, a British
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.
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
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.
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.
My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is on the purpose of
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.
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.