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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My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about how the human brain deals with the future.
Here it is with added links.
I recently came across the phrase
"remembering the future." Rather than some empty poetic paradox, it
appeared in an article about a neuroscientific experiment that
tested a hypothesis of Karl Friston of University
College, London, that the brain is more active when it is
In the study, volunteers watched patterns of
moving dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot
would appear out of step. Although there was the same number of
dots, the visual part of the subjects' brains was more active when
the dots broke step. According to Arjen Alink of the Max Planck
Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who did the experiment, the brains
were predicting what would happen next and having to work harder
when their predictions failed. They were "remembering the
Bishop Hill has a review of Tim Worstall's book Chasing Rainbows, which reminds me that I
meant to write about this book. I wrote a cover quote for it that
described it `fearless, fresh, forensic and funny'.
What is particularly clever about the book is the way that
Worstall makes economic theory so digestible, even delicious. He
refutes the dreary cliche so popular among environmentalists that
economics just `does not get' the environment (by which they
usually mean that they would like to do the equivalent of repeal
the laws of gravity and make things to happen even if they make no
sense for people: like getting people to give up cheap forms of
energy to take up expensive ones). Quite the reverse is true:
environmentalists all too often just don't get what economists are
trying to tell them.
I especially liked this little section which so neatly
eviscerates the Stern Report:
(picture from Eden's Path)
Here's a letter I sent to the editor of The Economist:
Last winter, we were told by scientists that it was `stupid' to
take the cold weather as evidence against global warming. Yet this
winter you are quite happy to speculate, entirely against the
consensus view, that the cold weather is evidence for global
warming (`A Cold Warming', Dec 4th). In
support of this fancy, you cite `some' evidence that summer heat
`may' induce shifts in atmospheric circulation that `might'
encourage seasonal patterns that would `probably' mean more cold
winters in Britain. Spare us the astrology, please.
There is a big new report on shale gas from the No
Hot Air website. It is far too expensive for me, but here is a
summary of what it supposedly concludes:
The key issue going forward for natural gas
is not managing supply, but creating demand.
The US success in shale gas technology can be
replicated in multiple locations world-wide.
My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the work of Sugata Mitra, who is
turning education upside down with the help of the internet:
For some time now I have been aware of environmentalists who
dislike the way their agendas have been hijacked by climate change.
The orthodox view is that climate change is raising the profile of
all environmental issues, but is it?
Can it really be easier to raise money for a wildlife
conservation project in Madagascar or Galapagos when everybody is
saying that the major threat is not habitat loss or invasive
species, but slow warming?
Can it really be helpful for bird conservation when green groups
take money from wind companies which kill golden eagles?
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
"The broad generalisations that label Africa a continent of failure and business losses are plain wrong. They are part of that same pessimism that insists the only products worth investing in are misery and minerals."
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
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.
On his blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, Julien
Riel-Salvatore discusses his recent paper about Neanderthals and
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.'
Here (a bit late) is my latest Wall Street Journal column, on
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.
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
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
Over at LIberal Curmudgeon, Steve Budiansky has a
good insight into a subject he knows well, ever since writing the
book Nature's Keepers: claims about species
The whole science behind the
extinction crisis is riddled withcircular reasoning, but this is an
especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field
studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it.
(The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of
the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was
derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened
on the IUCNRed Listwere presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on
the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat
Like Steve, I care about extinctions. In my youth I worked on
three different projects to try to diagnose and arrest the decline
of rare birds in the Indian subcontinent. But like me he fears that
mega-political statements and exaggerated claims will only do that
Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose
solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve
Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject,
Rare-earth minerals are the 15
elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table --
known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global
production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex
in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern
electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets
in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium
crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact
fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights;
lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of
these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a
non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white
earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there
simply isn't a viable substitute.
In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface
mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.
Further evidence that ocean acidification is a
non-event, scientifically, even while being a big event for
Thus, both of the investigated coastal
plankton communities were unaffected by twenty-first century
expected changes in pH and free CO2. This may be
explained by the large seasonal, and even daily, changes in pH seen
in productive marine ecosystems, and the corresponding need for
algae to be pH-tolerant.
My latest column in the Wall Street Journal is
about the psychology of bureaucracy. just as we need to understand
the human proclivities that give rise to booms and busts in
markets, so we need to understand the human proclivities that
motivate officials. Here are five identified by Slavisa Tasic,
starting with `illusions of competence':
Psychologists have shown that we
systematically overestimate how much we understand about the causes
and mechanisms of things we half understand. The Swedish health
economist Hans Rosling once gave students a list of five pairs of
countries and asked which nation in each pair had the higher
infant-mortality rate. The students got 1.8 right out of 5. Mr.
Rosling noted that if he gave the test to chimpanzees they would
get 2.5 right. So his students' problem was not ignorance, but that
they knew with confidence things that were false.
The issue of action bias is better
known in England as the "dangerous dogs act," after a previous
government, confronted with a couple of cases in which dogs injured
or killed people, felt the need to bring in a major piece of clumsy
and bureaucratic legislation that worked poorly. Undoubtedly the
rash of legislation following the current financial crisis will
include some equivalents of dangerous dogs acts. It takes unusual
courage for a regulator to stand up and say "something
must not be done," lest "something" makes the problem
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