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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Latest Mind and Matter column is on why there is nothing so old as the recently new:
Watching friends learn kite-surfing last week, equipped not only with new designs of inflatable kites shaped like pterodactyls but new kinds of harnesses shaped like medieval chastity belts and even new helmets shaped like Elizabethan sleeping caps, it occurred to me that nothing becomes obsolete so fast as something new. For it is pretty clear that the rise of kite-surfing, invented in the late 1990s, is slowly killing wind-surfing.
Fox News has dug up some remarkable botched
predictions about the environment. Most are familar but three were
new to me:
Happy New Year.
I mean it. 2011 will see horrible things, no doubt, but it will also see a continuing incremental reduction in poverty, hunger, illness and suffering, plus a continuing incremental rise in most measures of human and planetary wellbeing.
Here's a fine blast of optimism from John Tierney in the New York Times. He took a bet with a peak-oiler and won hands down.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal, with added links:
Don't look for the soul in the language of DNA
Back in the genomic bronze age-the 1990s-scientists used to
think that there would prove to be lots of unique human genes found
in no other animal. They assumed that different species would have
many different genes. One of the big shocks of sequencing genomes
was not just the humiliating news that human beings have the same
number of genes as a mouse, but that we have the same genes, give
or take a handful.
Rachel Carson, in her hugely influential book Silent Spring, wrote that she expected an
epidemic of cancer caused by chemicals in the environment,
especially DDT, indeed she thought it had already begun in the
``No longer are exposures to dangerous
chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of
everyone-even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising,
therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in
The increase itself is no mere matter
of subjective impressions. The monthly report of the Office of
Vital Statistics for July 1959 states that malignant growths,
including those of the lymphatic and blood-forming tissues,
accounted for 15 per cent of the deaths in 1958 compared with only
4 per cent in 1900. Judging by the present incidence of the
disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that 45,000,000
Americans now living will eventually develop cancer. This means
that malignant disease will strike two out of three families. The
situation with respect to children is even more deeply disturbing.
A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical
rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than
from any other disease. So serious has this situation become that
Boston has established the first hospital in the United States
devoted exclusively to the treatment of children with cancer.
Twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one
and fourteen are caused by cancer. Large numbers of malignant
tumors are discovered clinically in children under the age of five,
but it is an even grimmer fact that significant numbers of such
growths are present at or before birth. Dr. W. C. Hueper of the
National Cancer Institute, a foremost authority on environmental
cancer, has suggested that congenital cancers and cancers in
infants may be related to the action of cancer-producing agents to
which the mother has been exposed during pregnancy and which
penetrate the placenta to act on the rapidly developing fetal
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.
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